Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tribeca ’14: An Honest Liar

He has been a sworn foe of all swindlers and conmen, but James Randi had two great nemeses in his life: Uri Geller and a milk can. However, the magician, escape artist, and one man bunco squad received his own lesson regarding the relativity of truth during the course of Justin Weinstein & Tyler Measom’s documentary, An Honest Liar (trailer here), which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

"The Amazing" James Randi literally ran away with the circus. Learning sleight of hand and other illusionists’ secrets, Randi realized magicians could easily misapply their skills for criminal purposes. His respect for the craft kept him honest and made him resent those who used the tricks of their trade to fleece the gullible. While still a practicing illusionist, Randi set about exposing faith healers and phony psychics. In a twist of fate, a nearly fatal attempt to replicate Houdini’s milk can escape essentially forced Randi to become a full-time truth-teller.

Frankly, those unfamiliar with Randi’s greatest hits might be surprised by the time and logistical planning required by some of his operations. Yet, the media was often just as resentful of Randi’s efforts as the fraudsters he uncovered. The Carson-era Tonight Show was a notable exception. In fact, Carson’s staff dealt a seemingly fatal blow to up-and-coming psychic Uri Geller by following Randi’s prop handling instructions. It has been said before, but nobody played Johnny Carson for a fool.

Many of the intrigues Honest documents are absolutely fascinating, bringing to mind the hit-or-miss skullduggery of Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights, except they are considerably more interesting. They also happen to be true. The third act revelation is also a real surprise most causal viewers will not see coming. It is not exactly a focal concern, but Honest reminds the audience of the appalling state of human rights in Venezuela when that shoe finally drops.

Honest delivers plenty of magic and flim flammery, but it has a highly pronounced dramatic arc. Compared to the breezy fun of the Ricky Jay doc, Deceptive Practice, it is much more serious and sober.  Clearly, Weinstein & Measom won over Randi’s trust, capturing some truly wince-inducing long dark nights of the soul. The filmmakers also scored an on-camera with Geller, the unrepentant spoon-bender, for the sake of fairness and completeness.

Wisely, Weinstein & Measom minimize Randi’s collaborations with atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins, instead positioning him as an intrepid debunker of those who would exploit others’ faith for financial gain. Regardless, the details of his long campaign against dangerous fakers are far more cinematic than the typical doc grist. Recommended for skeptics and magic fans, An Honest Liar will screen at Hot Docs on Wednesday (4/30), Thursday (5/1), and Saturday (5/3) following its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.