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Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
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by Jay Seaver

"Ricky Jay's a wonder, and this documentary only scratches the surface."
3 stars

Even those of us who have never seen Ricky Jay do close-up magic will likely recognize the man from his side gigs as a character actor - and if you stay through the credits of those movies and others, he'll often be credited as a consultant on card-sharping, con artistry, and of course magic. He's also a prolific author, and I suspect that while his enthusiasm where the magicians who inspired him are concerned comes through well here, his books on the subject must be exceptional.

Ricky Jay Potash, we soon learn, was practicing magic from an early age, picking up the bug from his grandfather Max Katz, an enthusiastic and highly-regarded amateur. Through Katz, Jay met many of New York's great magicians like Cardini, Slydini, and Al Flosso; after moving to California, he would meet Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon. He talks about these mentors backstage at his performances, as clips of those shows and some of his TV appearances.

There's a well-known and mostly-respected code of secrecy among magicians that marks it as a brotherhood, and while it's admirable enough in its way, it leaves something of a gap in stories that the movie is telling: As much as Jay is able to give entertaining background on the magic scene and describe what various illusionists did well, he is obviously loath tell how those feats are accomplished. It's maybe not necessary information, but it perhaps makes pinning down what each mentor contributed to Jay's development as a magician beyond vague generalities.

Similarly, the audience won't necessarily learn a whole lot about Jay himself; he is pointedly short when talking about his lack of a relationship with his family after the death of his grandfather, for example. We hear a story by one of his Hollywood collaborators about how one of Jay's shows was well-attended by card hustlers, so he moves about an interesting world, but it's not something that's explored in any sort of detail at all. Indeed, perhaps the most telling thing about the film's main subject is comparing his early talk-show appearances where he's long-haired and broadly comedic to the scholarly but still witty modern Ricky Jay.

The man still is possessed of enough of an odd charisma to make Deceptive Practice an interesting watch. He's an amusingly low-key showman on the stage, and has a nifty way of talking enthusiastically about the history of magic without sounding completely nerdy and obsessive. No mean feat, considering just how arcane some of his knowledge is and how often he talks about the soothing nature of constant practice. And while some of the archive footage certainly shows its age - some is old and beat-up enough to make tricks look like they may be editing rather than slight-of-hand, some is blown-up standard-definition video - it shows some fairly impressive magic, and Dai Vernon looks like he was a treasure. It also doesn't hurt one bit to have a couple good bits with Steve Martin worked in there, either.

Even with his relative reticence, Ricky Jay is still an intriguing guy and a font of interesting knowledge. "Deceptive Practice" will certainly make those who see it a little more interested the next time he pops up in a movie or on television - and definitely curious about him in his primary role of magician - even if its main effect is making the viewer wish there had been more.

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originally posted: 06/02/13 13:48:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 05-Nov-2013


  DVD: 05-Nov-2013

Directed by
  Molly Bernstein
  Alan Edelstein

Written by
  Molly Bernstein
  Alan Edelstein

  Ricky Jay

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