‘I know absolutely nothing about the 20th Century,” jokes Ricky Jay early in the profile documentary Deceptive Practice, and, indeed, the portly magician seems to belong to another time. In an era of seamless digitized special effects, his sleight-of-hand trickery is at once quaint and breathtaking. Once placed into Jay’s dexterous paws, playing cards either dissolve into thin air or else sharpen into lethal weapons. In one clip, he carves up a watermelon with the help of a few of his “52 assistants” – a rotund ninja master with a street-corner hustler’s incessant patter.
Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s film works first and foremost as a showcase of Jay’s skills, but he’s also an ideal interview subject – chatty, candid and blessed with a photographic memory. An inveterate hobbyist who likes to learn as much as he can about arcane disciplines, Jay has literally spent his entire life honing his craft (there’s footage of him performing as a seven-year-old) and his mastery is undeniable. In the film’s best scene, a British journalist recalls meeting Jay and watching as he seemingly conjured a block of ice in a crowded restaurant – an homage to a 19th-century illusionist that left his interviewer in tears.
Such miraculous tales notwithstanding, the story of Jay’s rise to prominence in the 1970s and beyond hits all the usual showbiz-biography beats: the salad days, the big break, the sincere reflections on his (relative) fame and fortune. In fact, given their subject’s proclivity for misdirection and subterfuge, it’s slightly disappointing that the directors play things so straight. In some ways, Deceptive Practice feels like a missed opportunity to play around with documentary form. In the end, the filmmakers don’t have anything up their sleeves.