“What a shame / I’ve been watching your game / as you fleece these witless fools.” Actor, author, historian and – most notably – magician Ricky Jay has had plenty of people watch his game during his 60 years of performing card tricks and magic acts. And the subject of the new documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, opening May 3 in Atlanta, has made fools of plenty of skeptics along the way with his riveting live performances.
Director Molly Bernstein’s doc zeroes in on the illusionists who kindled Jay’s interest in magic and turned it into a lifelong passion, starting with his grandfather Max Katz and continuing on through a fascinating array of characters with insanely cool names like Slydini and Cardini.
For anyone with even a passing interest in magic or history, Deceptive Practice makes for arresting viewing. The gregarious Jay is an appealing guide, walking us through the trademark tricks and eccentricities of these magicians (one mentor delighted in asking Jay to do the same shuffle 16,000 times). He also provides welcome context for what made them unique and important in the world of magic, while illuminating the impact they had on him personally.
Jay’s personality shines through in these discussions about his mentors, but he’s less forthcoming about what makes him tick, though he does allude to his strained relationship with his parents. Bernstein seems content to let Jay remain a mystery, though she does provides just enough interview and archival footage to give us a teasing glimpse into his social life (the adjective “cantankerous” pops up a few times), his professional career (director David Mamet provides vivid insights) and his sense of humor (Steve Martin appears in several amusing clips.)
A couple of notable creative flourishes from Bernstein and her team round out this entertaining documentary. The film’s original music, courtesy of Olivier and Clare Manchon, evokes a bygone era with its jangly strummings and carnival-sounding notes. Stacks of cards periodically pile into place to reveal the film’s subjects, and Bernstein uses mirrors and odd angles to echo the sense of illusion that Jay orchestrates for a living.
Shel Silverstein’s poem “The Game in the Windowless Room,” written for Jay and delivered by him as Bernstein’s camera pushes in and out on its subject, puts a nifty final stamp on the film: “No one there but him and me / A classic locked room mystery.” Deceptive Practice makes compelling viewing, even if Ricky Jay remains as mysterious as ever. Maybe that’s how it should be.
“Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" opens in Atlanta on May 3 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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