Movie Review: The Deliciously Deceptive Practices of Ricky Jay

The filmmaker is annoyingly passive and star-struck, as the documentary’s subject, Ricky Jay, speaks to his chosen agenda: a wish to tell stories about his mentors and favorite magicians.

Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Directed by Molly Bernstein. At cinemas throughout New England.

By Gerald Peary

Magician Ricky Jay — nothing up his sleeve?

For veteran magician Ricky Jay, there are no luscious women sawed in half, no fearsome Houdini-style escapes from a locked vault at the bottom of the Atlantic. When he was a young teen magician, he dressed fancifully like a toreador but such flourishes disappeared ages ago from his act. These days, he’s a bearded, balding, porky, middle-aged guy in a plain suit. His tricks are neither sexy nor heroic but, by design, small of scale and strictly sleight-of-hand.

Most often, they are restricted to an ordinary pack of playing cards, and what amazements Jay can pull off after a hearty shuffle. Yes, indeed, he can pick out every time the card you chose and you snuck back in the deck: magic 101, the most basic and generic of tricks, but his “moves” (the magician’s word) are built on and pushed a thousand mesmerizing, unexpected ways, with cards flying through the air right and left without a net. Marvelous stuff, as we witness through entertaining scenes from his stage act shown in Molly Bernsteins’s documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay.

A collector of thousands of magic books, Jay is particularly drawn to those pioneers of his necromantic profession who kept things simple, who, for example, might arrive at a home where they have been hired for a night’s entertainment and have brought along no props. They borrow an apple, a scarf, a coin, a shoe, and—voila—magic. Jay is especially fond of a story of a legendary, nineteenth-century magician who, one day, after doing very rudimentary tricks for a time for a gathered crowd, lifted a hat on the table before them, and underneath it was an unmelted block of ice.

What kind of guy is Ricky Jay? He is described by others as “irascible” and “cantankerous” and a control freak who always sits with his back to a wall. Don’t ask him, we are warned, about how he does his card tricks or anything about his family. Jay does tell us that he walked out on his mom and dad soon after his Bar Mitzvah—“My parents didn’t get it, didn’t get me”—but that’s it. And there’s an appreciative sentence or two from about his wife of seven years. She does get him. But otherwise, this documentary sticks tight to what Jay has agreed to discuss. The filmmaker is annoyingly passive and star-struck, as the documentary’s subject speaks to his chosen agenda: a wish to tell stories about his mentors and favorite magicians.

It’s commendable that Jay wants to honor those sleigh-of-hand maestros who went before him. Unfortunately, the very faded video clips of their work are frustratingly brief, so its hard to tell the difference in the talents of Syldini or Cardini, Dai Vernon or Charlie Miller, although Al Flosso is pretty hilarious making coins drop out of dupe Ed Sullivan’s nose. Otherwise? There’s a very perfunctory interview with David Mamet, who directed a Ricky Jay Broadway show and who has featured Jay in several of his movies, including The Spanish Prisoner and The House of Games. And there’s a useless, indulgent sequence in which Jay recites to the camera a multi-versed, rhymed poem that Shel Silverstein wrote for him: it’s a parody of doggerel a la “Casey at the Bat.” But doggerel shit it remains.

There is only one scene in which the timid filmmaker Bernstein takes a chance, and it pays off, dramatizing a long, long story about Jay from a Manchester Guardian reporter, who once was sent to Hollywood to write a feature about the magician. It was the 1990s, Jay was feuding with the BBC, for whom he was making a movie, so he was in full tantrum. But one day, when he was in a better mood, Jay asked this reporter to go with him on a long drive, which ended in a fast food restaurant. What happened there stunned the reporter, actually made her sob, and she still shivers recalling it. It was an enormously hot day, and, after they had been sitting at the table for a bit, Jay lowered his menu. And sitting before him was a huge block of unmelted ice.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.

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