Some of the best documentaries have a trick or two up their sleeves, a final revelation or three to amaze the audience. HBO’s “The Jinx” has been all over the news for concluding with an apparent murder confession by its subject, Manhattan real estate scion Robert Durst. But that’s just the most extreme example.
Less splashy films such as “Marwencol” (2010) and “The Overnighters” (2014) pulled revelatory, last-act rabbits out of the hat as well. In most cases the twists are all the more impressive because not even the filmmakers (presumably) saw them coming.
Such a reversal jolts “An Honest Liar,” Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s freewheeling and beguiling documentary about master illusionist and disillusionist James “The Amazing” Randi.
Now 86, the white-bearded, fast talking, gnomic Randi first fell under the spell of magic when as a boy in Toronto he watched Harry Blackstone levitate a woman onstage. He couldn’t figure out how Blackstone did it, but he wanted to do the same. At the age of 17, in a move that would lack all credibility in a fictional narrative, Randi ran away from home and joined a carnival.
Thereafter, Randi’s life played much like a history of TV talk shows. In a montage of clips, he’s seen dazzling hoary hosts such as Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and amateur magician Johnny Carson with his tricks, many of which are masochistic improvements on escape stunts by Houdini. At times it seems as though the film is becoming a chronology of Carson’s different suit jackets and ties. But at the age of 55, after Randi nearly died while locked inside a milk can filled with water, he called it quits. “There comes a time,” he explained, “when you don’t want to see a little old guy come out of a can.”
Then began his career of disillusionment. As one of his admirers and fellow magicians relates, in a Faustian moment early in his career Randi found himself swarmed by desperate people who saw him as a seer and offered him money to reassure them about their future. More tempting than the money was the feeling of power that comes with such grandiose deception. But Randi rejected the temptation, and became — again, like Houdini — a debunker of phony faith healers, charlatans and, repeatedly, Uri Geller.
But it takes one to show one. Randi employed deceits of varying complexity to unmask the deceivers, some with unexpected consequences. He promoted his young partner Jose Alvarez as a mystic who could channel “Carlos,” a prophetic, 35,000-year-old spirit. Carlos became an overnight superstar until Randi exposed the believers’ credulousness by uncovering the man behind the curtain. But the repercussions of the well-intended fraud would haunt him in his old age.
It would violate a taboo to relate how this movie magic, masterfully orchestrated by Weinstein and Measom, is done. Their film is as smooth as Randi’s patter and demonstrates how the documentarian’s camera is quicker than the eye.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.