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Movie Review: Certifiably Jonathan

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 5, 2010 at 4:22 a.m.

— Certifiably Jonathan, which opened the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival a couple of weeks ago with a special screening at the Clinton Presidential Center, is probably best received as a brilliant, broken play of a movie, an accidental wonder that skirts disaster. Ultimately it provides us with a tremendously interesting glimpse into the sometimes unsettling - but authentic - genius of Jonathan Winters.

It seems that director James Pasternak and his producing partner Richard Marshall (who ended up shooting much of the film’s footage) intended on making a fairly straightforward movie about Winters’ life and career. But documenting Winters’ life in a conventional journalistic fashion proved impossible, because of the comedian’s pathological need to perform and his manic-depressive swings.

So what they ended up with was a closer to Dada performance art than a documentary. Certifiably Jonathan is fascinating not because of its rigged up, largely improvised story arc, but because of the access it affords to Winters’ comedic process, and the way his work is informedby his madness. As silly and indulgent of its subject as it gets, it is nevertheless a very true-feeling film, a movie with the capacity to move the audience.

It also gives us a portrait of Winters - an American icon whose career stretches back to the mid-1950s - as a man beloved by his successors (chief among them Robin Williams) and as a frustrated artist, an accomplished painter who wishes his work were taken more seriously. (And who suspects it would be, were it not so easily dismissed as the hobby of a celebrity painter.)

The movie is comprised largely of Winters riffing with younger comedians (who obviously adore him), as he embarks on a MacGuffin-y quest to recover his sense of humor.

It’s also truly harrowing when, near the middle of the film, Winters delivers a poignant monologue on the terrors - and satisfactions - of growing old in a marriage.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure the film worked as a comedy until I attended the Clinton Center screening and watched the audience react. They all laughed, which was frankly a relief. It’s funny, but also cringe-inducing and discomfiting.

But that really only means that Certifiably Jonathan is a risky movie, that flies in the face of conventional expectations and cannot be easily corralled into a genre. It resembles the quicksilver sensibilities of its subject; if you don’t like it, wait a moment and an entirely different movie will come along.

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 11/05/2010

Print Headline: REVIEW

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Tim_Boulder says... February 16, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.

We just saw this movie in New York City, where it was soundly and roundly panned by the New York Times. Philip Martin really "gets" the movie in this excellent review. We had the good fortune to listen to the filmmakers Pasternak and Marshall discuss the joys and challenges of working with Jonathan and his bi-polarity over the course of five years of filming, a time during which Jonathan's wife of 60 years, Eileen, died of breast cancer.

This was not the movie that I was expecting to see -- a more conventional tribute that would have recognized Jonathan's true comedic genius in a straightforward way and identified him for audiences today as a pioneering improvisationalist. But the reviewer here correctly sees that such a movie is not so easily made due to Jonathan's mental condition and his age, and a different type of storytelling was necessary, one that showcased his imagination rather than his life.

It is unfortunate that the New York Times reviewer missed that point completely, and chose to write about the movie after previewing it in an empty theater, without the benefit of an amused, entertained, and appreciative audience. Philip Martin, on the other hand, understands the message of this movie, and how it may have been the only way to capture Jonathan's creative genius on film.

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