'An Honest Liar': Provincetown Review

Honest Liar Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Provincetown

Honest Liar Film Still - H 2014

A compelling magic act that loses focus in the big finish when the cloak gets whisked away.

This examination of the crusade against fraudsters by magician James "The Amazing" Randi won the Audience Award for best feature at the recent AFI Docs Festival in Washington, D.C.

In An Honest Liar, documakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom conduct a contemplative investigation into the murky layers of deception, drawing lines to separate trickery for entertainment purposes from hoaxes for commercial gain and fabrication as a survival choice. Primarily a portrait of retired magician and escapologist James "The Amazing" Randi and his mission to expose bogus mystics, faith healers and paranormal pseudoscience, the film navigates an abrupt turn when it explores an elaborate untruth in the subject's own life. But while that shift could have been smoother and its conclusions more coherent, this is nonetheless intriguing stuff.

Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto in 1928, Randi now seems a quaint relic when measured against the glitzy hi-tech showmanship of Vegas illusionists. But he once occupied a significant spot on the pop-culture radar, appearing regularly on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, landing a guest role on Happy Days and rigging Alice Cooper's stage decapitation on the Billion Dollar Babies tour.

Dropping out of high school and leaving home at age 17, he joined a carnival and styled himself after Harry Houdini. A poster on the wall of his Florida home bills Randi as "The man no jail can hold," and his record-breaking escape acts — from ropes, handcuffs, leg irons, straitjackets, caskets and cages — are seen in some delightful archival clips.

But when at 55 he decided he was too old to be squirming around in sealed milk vats, Randi became a serial debunker of charlatans who use magic tricks and other deceptive arts to dupe the public. As fellow magician Penn Jillette puts it, Randi's love of the profession made him resent anyone applying illusionist techniques for illegitimate purposes. Thus began a second career in which Randi used the tools of deception to unmask deception.

Two of his highest-profile targets were famed cutlery destroyer Uri Geller, whom Randi foiled by working with the NBC props team before the psychic superstar's Carson appearance; and evangelist Peter Popoff, whose tent-show miracles and audience mind-reading were exposed as chicanery when Randi revealed a recording of Popoff's wife feeding him information through a radio-transmitter earpiece. (That story inspired the 1992 Steve Martin film Leap of Faith.)

The filmmakers underline repeatedly that Randi's aim is not merely to discredit mentalists but to encourage the public to question whatever crackpot hocus-pocus they are being sold as psychic, paranormal or spiritual phenomena. The flipside of this is that often the public doesn't care.

"In entertainment, there is a kind of acceptability to deceit," says Geller, whose participation here makes him seem at the very least a good sport. "There's no harm in that. At the end of the day, there's nothing to reveal." Despite Randi's vocal skepticism, Geller's career continued, although he now calls himself a "mystifier" rather than a psychic and sells a crystal-jewelry line on QVC. Meanwhile, Popoff declared bankruptcy after being shamed but later resurfaced as a popular televangelist. All of this points to the elasticity of the public's appetite for truth.

Indignant that the Stanford Research Institute had endorsed Geller as the genuine article, Randi also set up an extensive laboratory-controlled test to prove that scientists could be swindled using tricks. In a similar tactic designed to illustrate the media's gullibility, he staged The Carlos Hoax. That stunt involved highly publicized appearances in Australia by a man claiming to channel ancient spirits (actually Randi's young artist friend Jose Alvarez aka Deyvi Pena), with Randi later participating in a 60 Minutes segment revealing that it was all fiction.

The film attempts, unsuccessfully, to weave a connective thread between that myth-busting and Randi's decision to come out at age 81 after being in a relationship with Alvarez for 25 years. The irony of a man who has dedicated his life to exposing dishonesty but had his own secrets to hide is clear. But it's also a reductive treatment of a complex situation, even more so because of the teasing suggestions throughout of a big revelation to come.

The parts dealing with the couple's union, and in particular, with a surprise twist that places their future together in jeopardy must have seemed liked the kind of dramatic coup that is a documentarian's dream. But while those developments provide an interesting detour, they feel inorganic to the central focus. The final section becomes a different movie — a personal tangent too insubstantially tied to the overall study to serve as a concluding note.

Production companies: Left Turn Films, Pure Mutt Productions, in association with BBC Storyville, Part2 Filmworks

With: James "The Amazing" Randi, Deyvi Pena, Penn Jillette, Teller, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Alice Cooper, Banachek, Jami Ian Swiss, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman, Michael Shermer, Alec Jason, Michael Edwards, Uri Geller

Directors: Justin Weinstein, Tyler Measom

Screenwriters: Justin Weinstein, Greg O'Toole, Tyler Measom

Producers: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein

Executive producers: Nick Fraser, Greg Henry, Gill Holland, Stephanie Levy, Gary Schermerhorn, David Shadrack Smith, Vijay Vaidyanathan

Directors of photography: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein

Editor: Greg O'Toole

Music: Joel Goodman

Sales: The Film Sales Co.

No rating; 92 minutes.