Pulling an impressive number of rabbits out of its thematic hat, this stylish profile of 86-year-old retired magician James Randi—who, in the ’60s and ’70s, found an unusual amount of late-night fame—pushes its way past skillful illusions to a deeper flirtation with power and showmanship. After running away from home at age 17 to join the circus, Randi rose to prominence, wriggling out of straightjackets on live TV and performing with Alice Cooper as the rocker’s “executioner” on the Billion Dollar Babies tour.
There came a point, though, when this shtick-savvy performer (in fact, a fierce rationalist) decided to commit himself to exposing his mystical competitors—and you wish An Honest Liar went further into this psychological shift, the most slippery and interesting part of the doc. While your jaw hits the floor as Randi goes on Johnny Carson to reveal a popular faith healer’s use of a wireless earpiece, you have to wonder about his motivations. And what made him infiltrate a Stanford study about the paranormal for several years, just to expose it as a fraud?
Codirectors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom bobble the opportunity to develop spoon bender Uri Geller into a proper nemesis, even though the Israeli “mystifier” sits with them and seethes (in an amazing evil-villain voice) at Randi’s meddling with his livelihood. Rather, the doc makes a hairpin turn into sentiment, as the realities of immigration law impose themselves on Randi’s private relationship with his Venezuelan lover of 25 years. We already know that professional charlatans run from their pasts. Where they head to, though, is the better question: For a while, An Honest Liar brings a captivating crusader into view.
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