Certifiably Jonathan, completed in 2007 but only now receiving a theatrical release, would seem inconsequential under any circumstances, but feels especially threadbare coming on the heels of Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. Both films explore the existential angst of irreverent comedy legends in the December of their lives and careers. But where A Piece Of Work offers an emotional X-ray of its subject’s complicated, ferocious soul, Certifiably Jonathan reduces comic Jonathan Winters to an adorable old codger whose every quip and ad lib delights director James David Pasternak to no end.
Pasternak’s labor of love follows Winters as he attempts to make it past the gatekeepers of the art world to be accepted as a serious painter and get shown in major galleries. As the film progresses, it abandons its always-shaky commitment to verisimilitude and gives itself over to a painfully quirky plot in which Winters’ sense of humor is sucked out of him by a spiritual vampire and he must win back his creative mojo so he can finish new paintings in time for a prestigious potential showing. This leads to scenes of Winters limply improvising opposite Howie Mandel—who inexplicably rides in a shopping cart—and inevitably, Winters and protégé/spiritual son Robin Williams improvising as a pair of stereotypical gay men.
There’s a great documentary to be made about Winters, a famously troubled comic genius who has wrestled with bipolar disorder and endured an eight-month stint in a mental hospital, where he underwent shock therapy. But Pasternak is less interested in plumbing Winters’ dark depths than in giggling uproariously while Winters does shtick. Sometimes Winters plays the straight man opposite a string of indulgent souls. At other times, he’s reduced to reacting to others’ shtick. Winters’ scenes with Williams suggest the cacophony of two self-indulgent guitarists soloing simultaneously. Regardless, Winters is invariably more compelling in the few moments when he talks about his fascinating, tumultuous life rather than acting the fool. Certifiably Jonathan is an unabashed valentine to Winters, but like an unfortunate number of valentines, it proves a little embarrassing to the giver and recipient alike.