'Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they're going to fool you and then they do it," the Amazing Randi says at the start of An Honest Liar, a documentary that picks up with the investigative magician at age 17, when he left his Toronto home to join a carnival, and follows him into his 80s, into his affecting personal life.
Randi was not always immediately forthcoming about his own deceptions, but he has spent his life debunking those who never came clean at all.
Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928, Randi went from renowned magician, mentalist, and escape artist to TV-ready skeptic, proving that the psychics, faith healers, and channelers who have caught the public's attention are no more than sleight-of-hand artists themselves.
The real joy of Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein's documentary is not the copious amount of file footage - such as clips from The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson could still smoke at his desk on camera - or Randi's inherent charisma, or even his acts of escape and magic. No, it's his relationship with his partner of 25 years, Jose Alvarez.
Their love story is the heart of An Honest Liar. At first, seeing their personal lives feels like a privilege, especially when Alvarez says Randi would not come out as a gay man until 2010 at age 81, after a lifetime in the spotlight. The documentary twists beyond the standard biography when their partnership is imperiled in the film's third act.
An Honest Liar is structured around Randi's laser-focus mission to expose those he believed were using acts of deception for harm - such as the faith healer Peter Popoff, or the psychic Uri Geller - even if that meant concealing his true intention to debunk his targets.
"It's the difference between using deception to conceal the truth and using deception to reveal the truth," says sleight-of-hand artist Jamy Ian Swiss. In the film, he joins talking heads including Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mythbusters' Adam Savage, and rocker Alice Cooper, who enlisted Randi on his "Billion Dollar Babies" tour.
But it's in the present day, in his interactions with his partner, that the real Randi is revealed. After getting to know the TV personality who unmasked psychics as simply magicians themselves, it makes getting to know the man behind the crusade even more powerful.
An Honest Liar *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein. With James Randi, Deyvi Peña, Bill Nye, Penn Jillette, Alice Cooper, Adam Savage. Distributed by Abramorama.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating.
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText