Comedy is subjective. Everyone has their own things that they find hilarious, whether it be a kick in the groin, a pie in the face or a well-placed pause. To add to that, comedy depends on your understanding; what you’ve experienced, the things you’ve seen, heard, and learned will determine whether or not you will find it funny for someone with a cart full of corpses to cry “Bring out your dead!” On top of all that, comedy is generational. The subtle comedy of the Marx Bros and Charlie Chaplin may not be grasped by the kids who laugh at the over the head beating Will Farrell or Dane Cook gives you. The mockumentary Certifiably Jonathan is about Jonathan Winters, a now 80-year-old comedian who’s been doing his thing for over 50 years. He is whom many comedians today consider the original improviser. Most of the comedians who are the big box office draws today owe Jonathan a big debt of gratitude. Including Robin Williams. Especially Robin Williams. This little film will help to make anyone, from any walk of life, background or generation realize that Jonathan Winters is a treasure.
Certifiably Jonathan is a comedy that weaves in and out of the bipolar world of Jonathan Winters. He is a comedian who may also be a gifted painter (more on that later). He has dreams of having his work in the Museum of Modern Art. The filmmakers become part of the film and show Jonathan’s work to a famous art critic who believes Jonathan is the missing link between Miro and Dali. The critic convinces the MOMA to give Jonathan a show if he can paint three all new pictures. Jonathan launches into a creative frenzy, but disaster strikes when his favorite painting, along with his sense of humor, is stolen. Without his humor, for some reason, Jonathan can’t paint and is about to lose the opportunity of a lifetime. So he sets out on a quest to get his mojo back.
This film, for the first thirty minutes anyways, had me going that it was a little bit real. After that, the twists and turns the film takes make it abundantly clear that the story and everyone in it is just trying to pull a fast one. I seriously wonder, with such a manic personality as Mr. Winters, if anything else was ever feasible for the filmmakers. It was hard enough for them to keep him focused on one subject for 30 seconds, let alone 80 minutes, even if that subject was Winters himself. It would have been interesting to hear what brought him to attempt this type of spitfire comedy, to hear who influenced him and to see if there actually is anything abnormal with a mind like his who can work on fifty different levels at once. Alas, we are given instead a compilation of vignettes with various comics in an almost sit-com like situation. The movie also back handedly shows us where Robin Williams got his shtick from. In the scenes where we see both Jonathan and Robin do their thing, they have the same type of hyper energy and can go from suicide to Benihana to the Louve in a matter of seconds. It’s almost dizzying. Both of them had worked together before on the 70’s show Mork and Mindy. It was on this show that I was introduced to both of them and now, after seeing this film, I want to go back and see what Robin Williams’ comedy was like before he met Winters.
There is a veritable cornucopia of comedians that get paraded through Certifiably Jonathan including Tim Conway, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, all the Arquettes, Jimmy Kimmel, Nora Dunn, Howie Mandel and Rob Reiner. All of them get their moment to try and help Jonathan get his sense of humor back in their own unique way. The ruse that propels the majority of this film is that idea about the pending Museum show and that a witchdoctor attacked Jonathan in a bathroom stall and stole his “funny”. This happens concurrently with another ruse that someone came into a small gallery where Winters’ paintings were hanging and stole not just any painting, but Jonathan’s favorite painting. Both of these plotlines lead only to try and add some sort of obstacle and tension to the otherwise failing story. It’s cheap, but again, I wonder how long the filmmakers tried to do a conventional documentary before they threw their hands in the air and went for this narrative line instead.
Jim Pasternak, the director and writer, is profoundly in the film stringing along the narrative and winding it around Jonathan as needs be. He directs from in front of the camera, more to give Jonathan a straight man to play off of then anything else, even though he barely gets to say anything. The downfall of the movie is that it is unreal — which is timely taking into consideration the various is-it true-or-is-it made-up documentaries we had last year. However, I do believe that the paintings that the movie purports Mr. Winters paints actually are his. But how am I supposed to know that for sure? When everything else is a sham, what’s to say this is true? It’s a shame really, because the paintings are very unique and often beautiful, just like the ramblings of the painter himself.