Honest Liar, AnReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/27/15 07:44:19
James "The Amazing" Randi has been best-known his efforts on debunking psychics, faith healers and other frauds for so long that many associate him with that alone. Even remembering that it was his qualifications as a magician that led him to become America's most famous skeptic doesn't necessarily imply he was a great escape artist. This movie won't necessarily do much more than remind a viewer of that fact but it will fill that person in on a couple things he or she might find pretty interesting.At first, it looks like the big secret hinted at early on in the film is that Randi is gay, which seems like a disappointment as far as revelations go; as much as it is something he could not exactly advertise during most of his 86 years, it's probably the least interesting thing about him. He seems to agree, mentioning it matter-of-factly when talking about growing up and recounting how he met longtime partner Jose Alvarez. That soon leads to relating one of his larger-scale attempts to demonstrate to the public how they are being taken in by con artists, "The Carlos Hoax", where Alvarez portrayed a "channeler" who was quickly able to become a sensation in Australia despite how any attempt to check his claims would cause the whole house of cards to come falling down.
Other big operations get a fair amount of time - "Project Alpha", a sting on faith healer Peter Popoff, and what seem like never-ending battles with arch-nemesis Uri Geller. It's material that is often right on the border between hilarious and maddening, depending on how angry charlatans like this make you, although I think that perhaps directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein err a bit on how they present it, often content at leaving things at "Randi proved Geller was using simple sleight-of-hand" without actually showing details. It's almost as though they are adhering to some sort of "magician's code" at the expense of making a terribly persuasive case. A bit odd, considering how Randi's career in magic is mostly presented in short clips that are almost casual.
Fortunately, it's not difficult to see why Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was popular enough to be in the position he occupied; a gnomish-looking man who is frequently saying something fairly tart, but generally in a way that keeps him sounding friendly. He and Alvarez are a charming couple on top of that, and it's a sort of delight to watch them together as a thoroughly domestic contrast to Randi's sometimes elaborate plans which almost seem disproportionate. That's an interesting angle, especially as related by Steve "Banachek" Shaw and Michael Edwards, who helped him expose bad practices by psychic researchers when young, although Penn Jillette and other interviewees tend to frame it differently, as Randi recognizing the power those who know deception as well as he can have and hating its misuse. Aside from Uri Geller, the interview subjects are almost uniformly admiring.
Indeed, for much of the film, An Honest Liar seems not quite disappointing - the material is too good and Measom & Weinstein at least capable enough to not mess it up (both they and co-writer/editor Greg O'Toole are experienced documentary filmmakers, working on such projects as Sons of Perdition). Things do get more interesting toward the end, when events seem to catch the filmmakers by surprise and the audiences are reminded of what Randi said were acceptable reasons to lie way back in the first scene; things get a bit more complicated. If this was sprung on the filmmakers, though, they did an excellent job of structuring their film in the editing room to make that part of the story a facet that fits right in.It's a late twist that maybe allows the filmmakers to indulge in a little too much of their own deception and ambiguity, but which also gives an uneven biography the kind of spike in interest that it could definitely use. "An Honest Liar" initially seems like a movie that preaches amiably to the converted, but grows into a more interesting story by the time it's through.
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