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Amazing Johnathan documentary tries to explain Las Vegas magician

Updated August 15, 2019 - 12:32 pm

“Everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts.”

It’s the sort of disclaimer you’d expect to see attached to an alien conspiracy video or one of those “based on a true story” demonic possession movies.

Instead, it accompanies “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” (Friday, Hulu), which should have been a fairly straightforward look at the Las Vegas-based shock comic and magician.

Or at least as straightforward as it could be, considering that the entertainer, born John Edward Szeles, was forced to end his 13-year run as a Vegas headliner when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and given a year to live — all the way back in 2014 — and is still with us.

Finding glee in chaos

One of the documentary’s first images is of Johnathan swimming in the pool at his Las Vegas home — while wearing pajamas. The next scene finds him flinging deli meat at his kitchen wall to see if it will stick. (It does.)

“I was hooked on coke for about 20 years,” he admits early in the doc. “Every weekend I did it. … Then something got me off of it. I switched to speed.”

By “speed” he means meth. He even takes a hit off a meth pipe on camera, then calls to suggest that first-time documentarian Ben Berman obscure the actual smoking in the finished film. (He does.)

Things truly don’t start going off the rails, though, for another seven minutes, when Berman incorporates audio from a phone call between the two.

“It’s gonna be neat,” Johnathan says, “having two crews, huh?”

The only response a confused Berman can muster is, “Huh?”

Six months into the production, Johnathan allowed another crew to film a second documentary about him.

Berman had to battle for access to his subject just as the comic hit the road, against doctor’s orders, for the first time in more than three years.

Johnathan, who trafficked in discomfort during his 30-year-career, seems to take more than a little glee in the chaos.

Amazingly unhinged

For those unfortunate enough to have missed the entertainer in his prime, his demented stage persona was a fixture on late-night TV in the 1990s.

With his ever-present headband, Johnathan would burst right through the boundaries of good taste.

Wielding a butcher knife, he’d order an audience member to stand — “You look like the idiot that killed my parents. I’m just kidding. I killed my parents.” — before seemingly sawing into his own forearm, spilling “blood” everywhere.

That thing Criss Angel does where he “swallows” double-edged razor blades, then ingests some string or dental floss, before slowly pulling the whole mess from his mouth to reveal that they’re all tied together? He bought that from Johnathan.

As presented in the film, Johnathan is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the guy whose act included a thalidomide joke that, decades later, remains among the most original and deeply, deeply wrong things you could ever hope to hear.

Given that background and the ever-more-bizarre events that unfold, Berman eventually questions whether the comedian was ever really sick at all.

It does not go well.

Real or illusion?

Without giving too much away — seriously, this has only scraped the tip of the bizarre iceberg that is his life — “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” gradually becomes more of a documentary about the making of a documentary.

Several of Berman’s interview subjects — including Carrot Top, “Weird Al” Yankovic and comedians Eric Andre and Judy Gold — are shown laughing at his predicaments. The filmmaker gets nearly as much screen time as his subject — if not more.

The whole thing plays out a bit like documentary noir. You can never be entirely sure what’s real or who can be believed.

Considering Berman’s background includes directing surreal comedies such as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and various Tim & Eric projects, there’s no way to be certain he and Johnathan weren’t in cahoots from the beginning.

Regardless, the result is an engrossing, unsettling, thoroughly messy film that left audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival buzzing about what, exactly, they’d just seen.

Generating that kind of publicity may have been among the greatest tricks of all.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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