Stage magician vs. charlatans in engaging ‘An Honest Liar’
It’s a story fraught with drama—fame, fraud, deception, religion, showbiz, money. Hot-button LGBT and immigration issues also swim to the surface in this tale of coming out, coming clean, and growing up. Dramatic fiction? No, it’s the life story of professional stage magician James (“The Amazing”) Randi, as revealed in An Honest Liar, the absorbing documentary by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom.
This is not your standard showbiz biography; the filmmakers’ primary interest is not their subject’s lengthy career on stage and TV. (Although they do set up their story with a vintage and hilarious 1950s-era TV clip of the Amazing Randi suspended upside down above a soundstage, wrestling his way out of a straightjacket, while a girl singer in Bettie Page bangs stands onstage beside him crooning “The Magic Touch”). Instead, the film focuses on Randi’s lifelong crusade to expose the uses and abuses of deception on and off the stage.
This is not a new idea. Legendary escape artist and showman Harry Houdini devoted the latter part of his career to exposing fake spiritualists who preyed on grieving survivors after none of them were able to put him in contact with his beloved late mother. Randi, like many generations of boys before and since, grew up idolizing Houdini, and replicating his signature tricks. And as stage illusions have become more sophisticated over time, so Randi noticed ways for “mentalists,” faith healers and other charlatans to fleece the gullible public.
It may seem ironic for a professional trickster to accuse other performers of playing tricks. But Randi maintains early on that “it’s OK to fool people as long as you’re teaching them a lesson” on the subtle art of trickery. “Magicians are the most honest people in the world,” he points out. “They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.” But a distinction should be made, in the words of interviewee Adam Savage of TV’s Mythbusters, between “deception to conceal the truth (and) deception to reveal the truth.”
It’s not that Randi is some kind of killjoy, determined to take the fun out of other people’s acts. The targets of his ire—and the lessons he wants to teach—are those he considers predators. “Channelers” like J. Z. Knight (Ramtha), who claim to dispense wisdom from ancient gods. Sleazy “faith healer” Peter Popoff, who wears a secret earpiece connected to his wife backstage, feeding him info he claims comes from God about his audience, whom he bullies into throwing away the prescription medicines they need—and filling buckets with cold cash donations.
Randi has a particular beef with spoon-bending mentalist and talk-show darling Uri Geller, whose stage illusions are interpreted as hard evidence of the paranormal. So irked does Randi become that he infiltrates a privately funded parapsychology study, Project Alpha, with a couple of young magicians to prove how easily science can be deceived. Predictably enough, the public resists having its illusions shattered, and Randi himself becomes a target of outrage.
For an earlier deception he now calls the “Carlos Hoax,” Randi hired young Venezuelan-born art student Jose Alvarez to play a Ramtha-like channeler. This leads to a solid, 25-year relationship (even though Alvarez is half his age) that becomes the heart of the film. And out of that heart grow the seeds of a real-life deception that comes back to haunt the master illusionist, while raising questions about justice, law, and compassion.
On camera, Randi (who celebrates his 80th birthday in the course of the film), proves to be one of the most grounded, witty, and entertaining on-screen raconteurs since Alejandro Jodorowsky in Jodorowsky’s Dune. A small, wiry, rather gnomish little figure onstage, even in his prime, he speaks with engaging candor about his “self-educating” childhood in Toronto (he left at age 17 to join a carnival and never returned), the evolution of his persona, and the end of his stage career at age 55, when a trick malfunctioned—almost fatally—and he decided that “no one wants to see an old guy getting out of a milk can.”
With Randi at its center, this becomes a perfect movie for Santa Cruz—full of humor, heart, and righteous indignation.
AN HONEST LIAR
*** (out of four)
With James (The Amazing) Randi. Directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom. An Abramorama release. Not rated. 90 minutes.