Film Review: Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Documentary portrait of sleight-of-hard master Ricky Jay, with an emphasis on his training and influences.

Few conjurers evoke such awe as Ricky Jay, an author, historian, raconteur, and absolute master of the vanishing art of sleight of hand. If you've never seen Jay perform, this grab bag of a documentary is a fair enough introduction. But Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. Rambling and unfocused, the film doesn't do justice to its subject. It will be a perfect fit for PBS fundraisers, however.

Co-directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein assembled a treasure trove of material, including home movies, television performances, archival footage, amateur videos, interviews, lectures, books signings, and clips of Jay appearing on stage and film. Dick Cavett contributes an intermittent narration, and heavyweight colleagues like playwright David Mamet offer observations.

The documentary singles out some of Jay's favorite performers, including Cardini ("the greatest act I ever saw in my life"), Slydini, Francis Carlyle, and Al Flosso, "the Coney Island Fakir." Jay explains how he learned misdirection from Cardini, how to explain a trick to the audience from Carlyle, discipline from Roy Benson. And from his grandfather Mickey Katz, a noted amateur magician, he learns that conjuring is a poor way to make a living.

Jay saves his highest praise for Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, the former a difficult mentor, the latter someone who would practice card tricks at night, in his bed, in the dark. And in Jay's eyes a nearly forgotten performer named Maldini, who eschewed props for impromptu stunts, may have performed the best magic.

The co-directors include footage of many of Jay's influences, as well as excerpts from shows like "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants." Some of the clips—like comedian Steve Martin setting up Jay's three-card monte routine on "The Dinah Shore Show"—are wonderful. Others are of such poor quality that they are painful to watch. The documentary's sound is annoyingly uneven.

The co-directors try at times to recreate old routines, showing just how difficult it is to photograph magic. It's hard, maybe impossible, to convince viewers that tricks haven't been rigged beforehand for the camera. And as Jay proves over and over again during his act, it's the performer and not the illusion that counts.

Ricky Jay is such an astonishing performer than he can make melting ice fascinating. Unlike glitzy Las Vegas acts, his tricks are actually dazzling displays of skills perfected over years of training. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay gives a sense of what makes him so special, but the artist deserves a better showcase.