AFI Review: Certifiably Jonathan

afi_fb.gifAdrienne Gruben saw another movie and she wrote another review. After the jump is her write-up of Certifiably Jonathan, the documentary(ish) movie about Jonathan Winters. When I was growing up, my dad gave me sort of a comedic education. He didn’t try to teach me how to be funny, but he made sure I had exposure to Winters, Monty Python, early Mel Brooks, and more. Like literature and coffee, I was too young to appreciate it fully at the time, but I’m thankful now. Herewith, Adrienne’s review:

Certifiably Jonathan, a doc and mock doc about Jonathan Winters’ comedy, mental illness, and paintings, might have been more appropriately titled What Just Happened?, which happens to be the title of another AFI Fest film. But before you assume my suggested name change means I hated it, don’t. It’s just such a supremely odd film that I can’t pretend that I got it entirely. And that might be because I’m about to be 40, not 60. Luckily, Margaret and Lisa, my two best pals for the last 30 years, turned me onto 1940s surrealist comics Bob and Ray in the 7th grade, so I have a partial understanding of where some of this storytelling came from. And that…is outer space.The film begins with classic clips of Winters’ humor, and any newbie instantly notices that he helped lay the groundwork for many contemporary comics, including Robin Williams (a dear friend of Winters who is featured throughout the film and whose humor Winters’ heartily takes credit for) and Christopher Guest. I worked for Guest during Waiting for Guffman, and as much as I personally witnessed his improvisational genius, I also now realize that he had to have grown up watching Winters on the Parr and Carson Tonight Shows. My 64-year-old dad, a former comic turned Federal Reserve VP, unknowingly quoted Robert Klein in the film when he recounted speaking with his high school pals exclusively in Winter-isms, sometimes as simple as, “Sir, can you give me directions to Route 35?” (With pinched face) “Route 35? Oh gah, let’s see…” But it’s all in the delivery and strained face.

I think that as great as Lucille Ball was (she was the topic of my 5th grade “Hero” paper) there were comics who were dabbling in true surrealism, a concept people forget to attribute to eras like the ’40s and ’50s. Guys like Ernie Kovaks, who broke the fourth wall, Bob and Ray, who created the “slow talking man,” and Winters, who made people roar by miming what it’s like to come upon a file cabinet filled with thousands of six-inch-tall men all yapping at once. Those (and others) were the comedy giants who passed the baton to comics like Guest, Dave Chappelle, and Sasha Baron Cohen. And filmmaker Jim Pasternak dutifully includes comics and comic actors like Howie Mandel, Norah Dunn, Jim Carey, and Sarah Silverman paying tribute to Winters. And then he takes us on a very odd, disjointed ride in desperate need of editorial restraint.

Using the haphazardness of Winter’s bi-polarity and obsession with having his not bad Miro and Dali like paintings hang in the MOMA, Pasternak, a screenwriter by trade, takes us on a journey that starts out as real and ends up incredibly un- and then surreal. Winters exhibits at a gallery in Beverly Hills and later in Vegas (much to his chagrin), cutting up and making his director break down laughing all along the way. Then the true antics start, and what begins to surface is that the film pretends to be about the surrealists’ influence on Winters’ art, when it’s really about Winters, the surrealist comic, influencing modern humor.

Fake critics and curators are introduced to block what Winters sees as his inevitable path to the MOMA. And boy does he get there, but not how you’d expect. Those last few minutes, which include a stunning exchange between Winters and Williams, make scratching your head through a sometimes frenetic mess of inter-cut scenes (where Winters approaches Dunn, Kimmel, and Ryan Stiles to help him get his humor back-a plot deviation about losing your artistic inspiration) worth it. But scratching your head should not be your last gesture with this film. When you leave, scour YouTube and Amazon for clips of old Kovacs, Bob and Ray, and Winters material because I guarantee you, you haven’t had a laugh that they weren’t in some way responsible for. — Adrienne Gruben

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