Film review: ‘Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay’

"Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" profiles the magician and character actor. Credit: Theo Westenberger/Autry Museum
“Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” profiles the magician and character actor.
Credit: Theo Westenberger/Autry Museum

‘Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay’
Directors: Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) globes

Since the 1970s, Ricky Jay has been a staple of stage, TV and movies, where he’s alternated between two personas: showboating magician and placidly smirking character actor for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet. A great film about Jay would do as he does, and try to hoodwink the audience via some elaborate and engaging ruse. But a good film will do. If anyone deserves a fawning Great Man doc, it’s someone who has kept up practices that were dead long before he was even born, and done so with a presence both warm and worthy of suspicion.

With the cameras finally on the real him, Jay chooses to spend a good chunk of his time talking about his mentors, including Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. The two legends of the sleight of hand who offer opposed stances: where Vernon was open about his secrets, Miller was more removed, unwilling to exploit his art for pay. Jay’s own style is an unbalanced mix of the two: though garrulous, his grin, which only extends so far, always says there’s something he’s not telling you. A study of Jay is also, happily, a study of the more underhanded side of his trade. To practice magic is to practice a more genteel form of sleight-of-hand. We’re reminded that Jay and those like him grift audience perceptions, not wallets, at least not always directly.

As interviewee, Jay isn’t exactly cagey, but he does only reveal what he seems to think may be interesting to a larger audience. (The most personal data — his late bloomer marital status — is only revealed in the final moments.) It’s telling that at one point he recites, with his euphonious, only slightly suppressed Brooklyn accent, a poem written about him by Shel Silverstein. The bulk of the film is, wisely, TV clips, offered as giant, delightfully inelegant blocks. Moviegoers may affectionately remember him stealing bits of “Heist,” “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Magnolia” (where he also served as narrator), but he was also a regular for Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. He’s shown as a longhair on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” sharing an episode with Kansas and the Sex Pistols; elsewhere he smoothly and satisfyingly tricks Steve Martin out of $51. The man himself remains ultimately elusive. But in this case, that’s as it should be.


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