4 / 5 stars
If you’re not sure whether you’ve seen (or heard) Ricky Jay before, trust me, you have. He’s played a hustler in David Mamet’s House of Games, a porno cinematographer in Boogie Nights, the narrator in Magnolia, and has been part of more TV productions than many sitcom actors. But acting is Ricky Jay’s side gig, really. The man is a master of magic, and for those whose only knowledge of professional illusion are those kooky David Blaine stunts, Jay is essentially the modern godfather of sleight-of-hand. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a quaint, informative, sometimes thrilling document of just what it takes to reach that vaulted status. As we quickly learn in Jay’s case, obsession certainly helps. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
For her directorial debut, Molly Bernstein applies the classic biography format to first trace the seminal moments of Jay’s career to lay the groundwork for what has become the man’s lifelong passion. (If you spend five to six hours a day working a deck of cards, you’re likely to get really good at.) The fun is that Jay, now in his mid-60s, is the narrator of his own life here—usually not the case for standard TV bios, which Bernstein has worked on—and you can tell why guys like Mamet, Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson dig his storytelling. Whether he’s a talking head or a voiceover, Jay has a warm tenor that’s just slightly guarded (maybe mysterious?), with a fair flair for the dramatic, certainly the result of decades spent setting up the ruse, of deceiving the audience.
The style helps when the attention paid to Jay’s life seems a bit inflated–it’s still great fun to hear him tell it all. His grandfather was a shining inspiration, introducing Ricky to the world of magic and its charming, bizarre inhabitants. Jay recalls an immediate attraction to magic as a school kid, young Ricky Potash already practicing his presentation and investing countless hours learning about the old legends, semi-legends and wannabes. Bernstein comfortably complements Jay’s memoir with photos and grainy snippets of 8-mm film to bring a real taste of old-school stagecraft to Deceptive Practice.
Part of that flavor is Jay’s untiring dedication to true, classic illusionists. Considering the secrecy of magic—and no, we don’t learn a thing about any particular trick, so don’t go there—Jay has a surprising transparency about the origin of his interests. Known for his deep knowledge of sideshow performers, scam artists and prestidigitators, Jay briefly admits that he got involved while looking for a hook. It’s a fleeting moment, but the man recalls needing something that would set him apart from a profession of astounding acts, and chose to dive into its history. It’s a neat nugget of insight in the film, and a springboard that gets us to some exciting narrative—something Jay is remarkably good at.
In one story, a BBC reporter who once interviewed Jay shares the essence of his showmanship, an illusion of (apparently) enormous complexity and planning, resulting in a revelation that brought the woman to tears. In her emotional retelling, she tries to convey the impact of Jay performing this just for her, talking only to her, a private audience of one. This is where magic moves beyond just a show of card tricks and disappearing coins for this woman, to a form of performance that transcends logical thought and sets us at our most curious and inquisitive. And that’s where the art is. Bernstein tries to get that across on screen, as much as one could in a two-dimension medium, and does an entertaining, admirable job. With some help from the guy at center stage, of course.