REVIEW: Certifiably Jonathan Paints Messy, Incomplete Portrait of a Comedy Legend
The documentary Certifiably Jonathan has engrossing moments in it. How can it not? It's got a great subject -- the extraordinarily voluble comedian Jonathan Winters, whose constant rush of words can be like a blizzard: beautiful, maddening, exhausting and finally beautiful again. But it's not a great film.
Director James David Pasternak follows Winters through a portion of his life that includes several potholes, including Winters talking about the period he spent in a mental hospital. And when Winters is troubled, the force of his personality disappears. His ability to take command of a situation through comedy dissolves just like a storm that suddenly ends.
Certifiably Jonathan contrives crises for its subject -- a bid to get his paintings into MOMA, among others. Pasternak probably recognizes the difficulty in pulling off a standard documentary that shifts between testimonials and confession. And his goal is to create a canvas big enough to contain his subject -- a man who darts off into volatile stream of consciousness comedy and yet doesn't flail wildly; his hands do exactly what he wants. When Winters is on, it's like watching a drunk cross a four-lane highway; when he's asked what he'd do if he were rich, he says, "I'd build a hospital. And put myself in it." His unstoppable ability to reduce his audience to helplessness is remarked upon by Pasternak when Winters joined the director and a friend at a Montecito café and the director notes, "After 45 minutes, I wanted it to stop because [the laughter] started to hurt."
And while the grafted-on plot is diverting, it minimizes Winters, a comedian whose sphere of influence is so vast that an entire movie could be made just listing the people inspired by his example; Craig Ferguson shines a light on Winters' footfalls every night on The Late, Late Show. And a number of those who grew up under Winters' sway are seen in Jonathan: Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Robert Klein, Sara Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel.
A stand-up comedian who's assaultive and decent and has managed a career that has spanned over five decades deserves a documentary. If there's a victim of his rages, it's Winters himself -- and the glimpses we get of the wife who put up with him for 60 years (she passed away in 2009) suggest what Pasternak might have pursued. But Certifiably Jonathan is a kiss to its subject's forehead -- there's no crime in that.