“Certifiably Jonathan” is not a bad movie, but much like the subject of the film, it is more than a bit bipolar.
The flick begins as a straightforward documentary about veteran comedian Jonathan Winters as he attempts to break into the world of modern art. There is a little bit of biographical information given, including a few classic moments from Kack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” but this is not a career retrospective (much to the chagrin of Roger Ebert). The thing is: It is also not a documentary.
Shot over a period of seven years, the movie is an opportunity — possibly the last opportunity — to document the improvisational style of the master himself. At a certain point the movie stops documenting fact and begins to document — and even stage — fiction.
If I had to point out a flaw in the film (and isn’t that the role of any critic — to be critical?), it is that the staged elements are not as good as the stream-of-consciousness improv. Winters gets the opportunity to play opposite a stellar cast of characters, including Robin Williams. I have a low tolerance to the style of Robin Williams, but the film contains exactly the right amount of him. Also included in the “cast” are Jeffrey Tambor, Ryan Stiles, Rob Reiner, Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Tim Conway, every famous person named Arquette, and Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman (shot when the two were still an item). Each of the celebrities get to improvise with Winters and the results are memorable.
This movie didn’t necessarily need a narrative thread, but it has one: the world of modern art. As Winters attends various gallery openings and has his paintings reviewed by dealers and art critics, it is decided that what he really wants (or wants for the purposes of the film) is to have his artwork on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But when one of his paintings is stolen, Jonathan Winters sinks into depression, believing he has also lost his sense of humor as well. Again, the narrative isn’t needed, and audiences would be better served by not worrying too much about it, which is my way of saying the plot is not what makes the movie worth seeing. In fact, it is best not to think too much about the storyline and just enjoy the comedy.
The movie opens in Los Angeles on April Fool’s Day in Beverly Hills. My hope is the DVD will include unseen footage. I’d like to see more of Howie and Jonathan at Target, for instance. In any event, check it out when you are ready to laugh hard.