Published Aug 07, 2014What's the difference between a magician and a con artist? To hear it from James "The Amazing" Randi, not very much. He should know: the Toronto-born magician and escape artist became famous for clawing his way out of straight-jackets and surviving padlocked water chambers, feats that drew comparisons to the renowned Harry Houdini. But despite his talent, what has made Randi a household name is an unflinching belief that magic shouldn't fall into the wrong hands.
As such, it's the 86-year-old Randi's second career as an investigator and — according to The James Randi Educational Foundation — "demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims" that drives An Honest Liar, Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein's zany and totally engrossing documentary about magic and, by the same token, deception.
As Randi says from the outset, it's okay to fool people as long as you're teaching them a lesson. So it's hardly surprising to see the diminutive, silver-haired illusionist draw on his repertoire of illusions to undermine those using the same tricks to fleece the public. By orchestrating his own hoaxes and hiring investigators, Randi — whose headstrong nature and natural charisma make him a delight to watch — makes it his mission to bring down the likes of cutlery-bending psychic Uri Geller and alleged faith healer Peter Popoff, among others.
But with any singular crusade in which the ends justify the means, there comes a point where tactics fall into question. After all, didn't Randi make a name for himself on the basis of deception, too? When his elaborate ploy involving a scientific study goes a little too far, Geller might be on to something when he points out that he and Randi are essentially doing the same thing.
It's not until later, though, that An Honest Liar reveals its depth. When a flustered Randi huffs, "The public doesn't really believe when they're being told straightforward facts, they'd rather believe what people tell them to believe," you realize society's reception to magic is disturbingly similar to its relationship with politics and religion. It's a commentary that exposes the many different layers at work in this documentary, including a startling twist in Randi's personal life that brings the film full circle.
Much like its magnetic protagonist, An Honest Liar casts a spell of its own, revealing as much about the human condition as it does about the dark underbelly of magic.