‘An Honest Liar’: Biopic with a twist

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For Digital First Media

Wouldn’t the title, “An Honest Liar,” be an obvious oxymoron on its face? The documentary about James “The Amazing” Randi would rebut the presumption.

Randi is a self-confessed fake, charlatan, and a trickster. However, he is also a magician. As Randi asserts, “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re going to fool you and then they do it.”

Born in 1928 in Toronto as Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, he felt profoundly alienated as a child. Randi recounts that early on he recognized that he had feelings that were different than those of his peers. He bemoans the strained relationship that he had with his father.

After seeing Harry Blackstone, Sr., perform and reading about Harry Houdini, Randi decided that he wanted to become a magician and escape artist. At 17, he dropped out of high school, ran away from home, and became a conjurer with a traveling carnival.

As archival footage depicts, Randi honed his skills, He is shown performing magic tricks and, even more impressively, demonstrating his skill as an escape artist. We see Randi dangling over Niagara Falls in a strait jacket. How can he possibly escape?

The risks are quite real. Randi simulated Houdini’s milk can escape trick. In it, he was submerged in an oversized milk can, which was filled with water. On one occasion, a mechanical defect nearly proved fatal.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "An Honest Liar" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9ZWaS_FjNU

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “An Honest Liar” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9ZWaS_FjNU

After years as a magician and escape artist, Randi shifted gears and refocused his energies on exposing phony spiritualists and paranormalists. This mirroed the efforts of Randi’s hero, Harry Houdini, who had done likewise in his later years.

Randi became best known for his campaign in the ‘70s to expose Uri Geller. The Israeli-born Geller convinced the unduly credulous into believing that he could bend spoons through his telekinetic skills. This included scientists at Stanford University. Randi performed the very same trick. He explained that it involved a simple sleight of hand, not the special mental capacities that Geller had claimed. When Geller was scheduled to appear on the “The Tonight Show,” Randi told the producers how they could easily foil a stunt that Geller was planning to do on-air. The footage of Geller trying to rationalize his failure is a hoot.  In 1986, after publishing the exposé, “The Truth About Uri Geller,” Randi became a recipient of a so-called MacArthur genius grant.

Another target of Randi’s debunking was the fraudulent faith healer, Peter Popoff.  Describing Popoff as, “dangerous,” Randi explains that people were duped into eschewing medical treatment. Instead, they accepted the televangelist’s bogus claims. The film documents how Randi uncovered Popoff’s duplicitous  methodology.

Randi was intent upon demonstrating just how gullible the media was and how easy it was to dupe them. To this end, he orchestrated a scam of his own. In it, Randi’s young companion, José Alvarez. posed as the channeler of the spirit of a long dead seer.

Documentarians, Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, have done a superb job of culling archival footage.  “An Honest Liar” also benefits from the interviews that the filmmakers have conducted. Alice Cooper discussed how he hired Randi to be part of his Billion Dollar Babies tour and supervise the show’s celebrated guillotine stunt. Penn Gillette of Penn & Teller provides a perceptive analysis if Randi’s motives. Most surprisingly, the filmmakers somehow convinced Uri Geller to appear in the film. The unrepentant Geller has now re-emerged as a huckster of jewelry on QVC. He insists that he was the victim of Randi’s obsessive harassment.

However, without question, the film’s best interviewee is Randi himself. He is quite a character. At 86, he is a gnome-like creature enriches the film with great anecdotes and clever quips.

Just when you think that you know what the movie is going, there is an unexpected off-screen development. It challenges the viewer’s perception of Randi.

When you make a narrative film, you can dictate its trajectory and denouement. However, when you make a documentary about a living person, you are subject to the uncertain vicissitudes of the real world. Documentarians, Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, were confronted with unsettling facts that they could not have anticipated when they undertook the project.

This film documents how easily we can be deceived. It is not without irony that the filmmakers of “An Honest Liar” end up being victims of a major deception.

***1/2 No MPAA rating 92 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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