Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay: Film Review

Deceptive Practice Film Still - H 2012

Deceptive Practice Film Still - H 2012

Astonishment abounds in doc about card-trick genius.

Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein's doc follows the life and career of magician Ricky Jay.

NEW YORK — One of the most compelling characters in magic gets his due in Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a documentary drunk on the infinite pleasures of playing-card trickery and smitten with the artists who've passed secrets down through the generations. The film will please Jay's many fans and holds special appeal on video, where viewers will be compelled to watch tricks repeatedly in slow-motion, trying (likely in vain) to figure them out.

A biography not of a person but a passion and career, Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein's film offers only enough personal detail as is necessary to explain how Jay (born Richard Jay Potash) found himself earning his own living as a teenager, taking to the road to pursue magic: He acknowledges having had "no relationship" with his parents, but whatever demons may have caused or resulted from that estrangement stay closeted.

We do, however, hear about Jay's grandfather, a businessman who took his hobbies -- from cryptography and billiards to sleight-of-hand -- extremely seriously. Jay, who staged his first magic act at age four (we see an entertainingly awkward film of him at seven), met the day's greats through his granddad, and viewers soon come to realize that this doc is as much about them as it is about the man carrying on their traditions.

We hear about showmen with fantastic names -- Cardini, Slydini -- and colorful personalities, whose relationship to aspiring entertainers Jay describes as that of a sensei: One of Jay's most important mentors would play students off each other, leading them to knowledge using the same kind of mental manipulation he'd use to steer an audience's attention away from a trick.

Jay learned well. It's clear from the opening scene how much he loves to practice handling cards, and we watch clips from throughout his career -- including his early, long-haired days, when the sardonic cool he wields now took a backseat to showbiz enthusiasm -- that are simply astonishing. For all the pleasure the film delivers, it doesn't reveal how a single one of Jay's card maneuvers is done.

Using plenty of vintage publicity photos and film, Bernstein and Edelstein give the picture a look echoing the classy flair of the pro illusionists whose lore Jay has kept alive in books and on stage. They make it easy to understand what entrances him about this world, and interviews with colleagues and admirers (including frequent collaborator David Mamet) suggest that this entrancement may be almost all there is to understand about Ricky Jay.

Production Company: Hopscotch Films, Inc.
Directors: Molly Bernstein, Alan Edelstein
Producers: Molly Bernstein, Alan Edelstein, Alicia Sams, Philip Dolin
Executive producer: Ronald Guttman
Director of photography: Edward Marritz, Ben Wolf
Music: Oliver Manchon
Editor: Molly Bernstein
No rating, 86 minutes.