‘An Honest Liar’
Directors: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein
3 (out of 5) Globes
The great magicians of old moonlit as debunkers, sussing out the charlatans and swindlers who, unlike those who peddle mere illusions, really did lie to their prey. Few have been as vocal and prominent at both jobs as James Randi, who entered the public sphere as “The Amazing Randi” — an accomplished conjurer and trickster who could replicate certain Houdini marvels. But age doesn’t go well with wrangling your body from boxes and burlap sacks and such, and so he segued in middle age into a full-time truth-seeker, not just busting psychics but those whose irrational beliefs went from merely daffy to outright dangerous.
In other words, Randi, as shown in the new profile doc “An Honest Liar,” has an amazing life, one that, improbably, gets even more thrilling when he’s no longer doing magic. In fact, Randi’s days as a TV staple, performing tricks on late night and on “Happy Days,” is given less attention than his takedowns of those who practice flim-flam (the made-up word that became the title of one of his best-loved books). Someone could make a great break-in-style movie, in fact, only out of his takedown of Peter Popoff, an evangelical preacher who claimed to have a direct mental tie to God himself. Throngs of the sick would diss doctor’s visits to attend one of his megachurch pageants, in which he would magically be able to single out people by name and ailment, then give them a good palm to the forehead. Randi and his crackerjack team crashed one of Popoff’s big dos — in disguises! — and deduced that he was using a tiny radio, with an assistant reading intel supplied to him by his guests themselves.
Popoff’s fall was mighty — he was even the inspiration for a justly forgotten Steve Martin sham-preacher drama, “Leap of Faith” — but he scored a second act anyway: Popoff reinvented himself as a more modest peddler of personalized holy water. Even when the bad guys have been defeated, Randi’s story shows, the public will always welcome another fleecing. Indeed, Randi’s white whale has long been Uri Geller, a mere magician who claimed his basic tricks (bending spoons, etc.) came from actual psychic abilities. Randi helped sabotage him on a notorious Johnny Carson appearance. When that didn’t destroy him, Randi would follow Geller on the road, going on talk shows the day after he had appeared, showing exactly how his jaw-dropping tricks were done.
“An Honest Liar” doesn’t get too into his outreach programs and skeptic conventions, perhaps because those are more mundane than watching him single out scammers for rigorous ownage. (One subject not given enough lip service is the late psychic Sylvia Browne, who spent years lamely evading Randi’s “Million Dollar Challenge,” which would gift a one million dollar prize to anyone who can verifiably prove supernatural powers — one that, of course, has never been gifted.) But it gets what really drives Randi: the need to help spare a reliably gullible public from acting opposite of its own self-interest, throwing in with the rip-off artists who may destroy them or the planet. (Like any self-respecting skeptic, Randi is a passionate advocate for the veracity of climate change.) Then again, it’s a depressing uphill battle.