If you haven’t heard of Jonathan Winters, you’ve certainly seen his influence. While the bulk of his comedic career was in the fifties and sixties, Winters is the inspiration for many modern comedians, if not their hero. Robin Williams wanted to be Jonathan Winters when he grew up. This guy’s a big deal.
From early work in comedy clubs, Winters went on to TV variety hours, creating a variety of colorful characters. If there was something funny on TV in the sixties and seventies, Winters was likely involved. Certainly, a mockumentary about such an influential comedian would pay homage to the subject and have some laughs of its own…right?
Certifiably Jonathan follows a 78-year-old Jonathan Winters as he attempts to begin his painting career. Starting from scratch as an old man isn’t easy, even with a previous career to help get his name out. Along the way, he loses his sense of humor and can no longer paint, so he must enlist the help of modern comedians to recover it in time for a big gallery opening.
The movie is an absolute wreck. The filmmakers set out to make a documentary about Winters and decided to add in some imaginary plot lines to spice it up, and it’s incredibly obvious. One would expect the invented scenes to be a bit silly, given that the subject of the film is a comedian, but they’re jarring and unpleasant combined with the actual emotion portrayed in the real scenes. Something like this could work if the two flowed together and left the audience wondering which parts were real, but Certifiably Jonathan makes one wonder why there are real interviews in a movie full of terrible improvisation.
The immense disconnect between the genuine scenes and the scripted ones is not helped by the quality of acting. Winters himself is not guilty of this; it’s clear that he is constantly in performance mode in his daily life, and very few of his jokes fall flat. The cast is mostly composed of well-known comedians, so the abhorrent acting is all the more surprising. There is one great bit of improv work, and it’s between Winters and Robin Williams. They have an amazing chemistry that’s sorely missed in the rest of the film.
If the premise and terrible acting weren’t enough, the editing really does the film in. Unnecessary shots, poor cuts, and illogical sequence orders run rampant, joined together with shoddy effects work that looks like it comes from a PowerPoint slide. Most of the shots are of Winters sitting in the back seat of a car, and it’s rarely clear where they’re going or why. Certain imaginary plot lines were dropped in favor of others, but threads of the initial choice are left in, just to be abandoned without explanation.
It’s rare to see a documentary that dislikes its own subject, but Certifiably Jonathan definitely seems to. It’s interesting to see the negative sides of a public figure, and refreshing that the inevitable all-is-not-well-in-his-life section that all documentaries have isn’t about a poor family life or drug addiction. This goes beyond that, though, painting Winters as an addled old man who can’t control his own decisions and annoys everyone around him.
There are some positives in the film. It’s true that Jonathan Winters is a painter, and while he won’t sell any of his work, it’s pretty fantastic. He has a surreal style and his sense of humor is evident in the titles of the pieces– my favorite is “Two Birds Watching Doris Day’s Cat and Dog Drown.” Very little of his work is available to view online, but Certifiably Jonathan shows quite a bit of it, animating a few of the paintings to play up the themes. Other than the painting, seeing Winters performing as an old man is very entertaining, and he clearly knows that he can get away with saying quite a lot.
For a movie about such a funny man, Certifiably Jonathan has far too few laughs to make up for the terrible production and horrendous acting. It is currently out in New York City and Chicago and will be opening in Los Angeles on April 1st, but it likely won’t go much further than that.