The cranky conjurer

Fool me once...

“Let me tell you, you have not lived until you’ve had one of Abe Lincoln’s ghostly neck rubs.”
  • “Let me tell you, you have not lived until you’ve had one of Abe Lincoln’s ghostly neck rubs.”

If you’ve already had your fill of illusory summer movie magic, why not set aside the comic books and spend some time watching the Iron Man of misrepresentation.


Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay 3.0

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In the hands of crackerjack conjurer Ricky Jay, a deck of playing cards holds the same potential threat as a ninja warrior’s throwing stars. Many remember Jay’s card-flinging act on Merv or the Carson show, while others know him as David Mamet’s good-luck charm. (The two have teamed on over a dozen projects.) Deceptive Practice, a shabbily concocted yet still mesmerizing documentary, follows Jay as he takes us on a tour of some of the great unsung names in magic.

With kissers like those belonging to skilled sleight-of-hand artists Cardini, the Great Slydini, and Al Flosso, you’ll wonder whether you’re watching a movie or thumbing through Drew Friedman’s latest collection of disfigured caricatures. Not only did Jay get to see his idols perform in person, he became friends with many of them. Joe Flosso performed at his bar mitzvah and Jay “broke the wand” at his grandfather Max Katz’s funeral.

Cards aren’t the only thing Jay keeps close to his vest. The master illusionist handily diverts attention from his private life, refusing to entertain questions about his parents, whose home he fled at age 16. The closest we get to a rounded portrait comes from a British journalist. She is ultimately treated to a private illusion so stupefying that her grandchildren will tell their grandchildren about it, but not before getting a taste of Jay’s cranky perfectionism.

Be warned, however, if you’re expecting to find cinematic trickery along the lines of Orson Welles’s F for Fake, you’ve been duped. When it comes to crafting a narrative, directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein have nothing up their sleeves.

Testimonials shot in choking close-up, inexcusable as they are, have become rudimentary fodder for too many contemporary documentarians. The film credits three videographers, all of whom would be laughed off a porn shoot. Has there ever been a theatrical documentary like this, where fuzzy blow-ups of archival VHS tapes from the ’80s look crisper than any of the newly shot interview footage? Next time, fellas, remove the cell phone from your pocket before hitting record.

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