Film Review: Certifiably Jonathan

There's a trove of laughs to be found here, courtesy of the ineffable Jonathan Winters, which somewhat override the labored mockumentary gimmick.

Certifiably Jonathan makes one thing eminently clear: Without Jonathan Winters, there would be no Robin Williams. That unbridled, sometimes tiresome, manic improvisatory shtick of Williams' owes an enormous debt to what his older mentor did before him. At one point in this documentary, Winters shows off an $8,000 watch, a gift from Williams, and says it's really no big deal, "as he stole so much from me."

Director Jim Pasternak describes meeting Winters outside a Montecito café and getting into a convulsing conversation with him that just went on and on, inspiring him to film the comedian. His movie is a rather ragtag affair (which had been shelved for three years), veering between biography and an overarching need to be some kind of performance art in itself, but achieves its main goal in preserving the deliriously unhinged mind of its subject. An early clip from a Jack Paar TV show has the host handing a stick to Winters which, in his hands, morphs into everything from a conductor's baton to a native African's oar, with about a dozen breathlessly varied stops in between. Some folks have found Winters' humor elusive, too quirky, but seeing that restless brain in live action, untethered by the needs of a conventional role or routine, proves its best showcase.

They say every comedian yearns to be Hamlet, but in this case, it's Picasso or, more precisely, Miró, whose brilliant imagery is evoked in the canvases Winters loves to paint. His ultimate ambition is to hang in the Museum of Modern Art and a good part of the film is taken up with his attempts to achieve that goal, aided by surprisingly convincing actors playing "prominent art critic Nicholas De Boor" (Dominic Keating) and "MoMA curator Stacy Kaufman" (Nikita Ager). While this gives the film some dramatic thrust, the veer-off into mockumentary also feels forced in the extreme and its payoff, with Winters threatening to commit suicide in the museum, falls flat. The paintings themselves are strong personal statements, vividly colored and laced with puckish humor, but ultimately too naive to really rank as great art, although they look good when animated, as is done here. You wish Pasternak had just been able to concentrate more on Winters' actual, fascinating biography, without the need to "entertain."

Poking through all the yocks are some quieter moments of reflection, like Winters recalling his own very real bouts with mental instability and his observation about his long marriage, that it's really not sad when a husband and wife go to their separate bedrooms: There's snoring, for one. The man touchingly emerges as a kind of comic King Lear, rather lost in the wasteland of contemporary show business: lauded by every younger comedian—Jim Carrey, the not-seen-enough Nora Dunn, Jimmy Kimmel, Robert Klein, Sarah Silverman, Howie Mandel, and Williams, of course, all dutifully weigh in—but what does that really get you? It's tantalizing to think of what kind of a film career he might have had if born a few decades later. Now, seemingly every stand-up with any kind of following gets his shot and, with his undeniable, twisted genius and unconventional looks ("I wasn't handsome, but I was cute"), Winters could well have forged the kind of success enjoyed by everyone from John Belushi to Adam Sandler.