Charisma is a magician’s necessary tool for two reasons. First, so that his personality might distract us from his technique, and second, so that we may be seduced into wanting to be deceived.
Even at age 86, “The Amazing” James Randi has charisma to spare. Possessed of twinkling eyes, a quicksilver wit and a veteran showman’s way with a story, he makes you want to believe and surrender to him, even if everything he’s telling you is part of the act. But that’s the foundation of both his appeal and this film’s smoke-and-mirrors agenda: Randi is a self-professed “charlatan” in the name of truth, a man whose trickery is employed at the service of exposing our vulnerability to being taken for fools.
A carnival-bound refugee from home – Toronto, it turns out – at an early age, Randi dedicated himself to learning every escape trick practised by the great Harry Houdini and going them one or two better. In some of Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s aptly seductive An Honest Liar, we see Randi at the top of his escape artistry: shedding a strait jacket while being dangled upside down, hanging by his ankles over Niagara Falls.
But when health, age and a close call or two make Randi consider a break with the escape business, he takes up another calling with a fervour that not only comes to resemble a crusading obsession, but also confirms his status as a pop cultural fixture by the 1970s. Determined to expose the trickery behind religious faith healers, bogus psychics and other practitioners of boondoggle whom he believes are in the business of exploiting people’s need to believe that magic and miracles are real, Randi sets out to expose the game.
The role not only lands Randi serially on Johnny Carson’s couch, the set of Happy Days and Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour (where he’s charged with the nightly decapitation of the headliner), but also firmly in the headlines. Taking particular umbrage with millionaire fundamentalist faith healer Peter Popoff, and talk-show spoon-bender/“mentalist” Uri Geller, Randi devises scams in the name of truth that are every bit as dramatic as what they expose.
Working with The Tonight Show staff, he rigs a tray of metal objects so that they can only be moved by Geller if “what he says is true,” resulting in one of TV history’s more excruciatingly embarrassing high-profile debunkeries. And when Randi discovers the true source of Popoff’s direct channel to God (a radio in his ear through which he is fed information by his wife), the man’s miracle industry is ground to an almost instant halt.
If the resilient careers of both men prove the distressing tendency of people to want to believe the magic is real, they also strengthen Randi’s campaign to tell the truth at any cost. In the most elaborate (and ethically contentious) phase of his career, he perpetrates a hoax on the Australian public concerning a young man claiming to channel the spirit of a ancient seer, and then insinuates two bogus “mentalists” into a university study that confirmed Geller as the genuine article.
Both events are documented at length in An Honest Liar, for they are the incidents that bring home the paradox of the title. In the university scam, it rests on the question of whether Randi’s methods are themselves a form of dubious deceit. In the Australian hoax it’s more personal, as we come to learn something about the young man at the centre of the affair, a long-time companion of Randi whose own secrets beg the question of just who’s fooling whom, and why.
The ultimate question in An Honest Liar is whether it’s possible to know so much about the method behind the magic without being fooled into believing your own act.