You may know him as a droll, poker-faced presence in Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet movies, but Ricky Jay’s been stealing the show long before he had a film camera trained on him. This renowned sleight-of-hand artist and magic-history expert began his illusionist apprenticeship at age four, building a card-based repertoire that would lead to a run of highly successful one-person shows. (Wilderness-year gigs included opening for Cheech & Chong and the B-52s.)
The man himself has rarely been profiled without noticeable reluctance, though documentarians Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein delve fairly deep by allowing their subject to guide them where he may. Clips of his early rabbit-in-the-hat experiments show Jay to be a dyed-in-the-wool thespian, and contrast nicely with his terse descriptions of an unhappy childhood. His true mentors were spiritual rather than blood relatives—people like Magic Castle staples Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, whom Jay speaks of with an impressively complicated sense of admiration that, even in its tell-it-to-you-straight perceptiveness, feels like part of an act. That’s the fun, of course: Like any great enchanter, Jay is a master at gaining an audience’s confidence. In Deceptive Practice’s most moving scene, a journalist recalls how one of Jay’s tricks—making a large block of ice magically appear on a restaurant table—brought her to tears. It’s a reminder that deception, in the best of cases, is a pathway to transcendence.
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