For those with an appetite for smoke and mirrors, and a soft spot for pranksters, this doc should be a winner. The ingredients are there: a Las Vegas magician on a comeback tour; a debut filmmaker who has an unhealthy obsession with his looming death; and the real-life revelation that the magician has given the go-ahead to another, parallel documentary. Sadly, it falls flat.
Director Benjamin Berman amps up the inconvenience caused by that second film crew to ridiculous extremes, leaving all interest in the ailing John Szeles (the titular Amazing Johnathan) behind. Maybe, we’re made to think, it’s one long practical joke, the kind Szeles made his name with – like pretending to hack through his forearm with a butcher’s knife. Or, you suspect, as Szeles continues to snub him, Berman is just a glutton for punishment.
Either way, patience wears thin. Gleaning little from its talking-head interviews and even less from the performer himself, ‘The Amazing Johnathan Documentary’ feels baggy. This is most obvious during a long sequence revolving around whether or not Berman can legally take a hit of meth, Szeles’s drug of choice, on screen. The filmmaker pulls off one amazing trick of his own near the end, but the payoff is hardly the bonanza it needs to be. And the question he’s asked by a producer halfway through – ‘What interested you in a dying magician?’ – is left oddly unanswered.