Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Opens Fri., May 3 at Varsity. Not rated. 89 minutes.

Ricky Jay is arguably the greatest master of sleight-of-hand and legerdemain in America today, but he’s more than an old-school magician with contemporary wit. He’s an actor, sure, a familiar presence in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, yet he’s also a historian of magic and showbiz oddities, a collector of stories and lore. He’s an author, raconteur, and showman who prefers to work as “a close-up magician,” as he’s called in Molly Bernstein’s admiring documentary. He is a wonder with cards, his tool of choice; and the nonchalance of his presentation makes his mastery all the more riveting.

There’s plenty of footage here of Jay and his cards, from his long-hair days performing on The Tonight Show (at age 20) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert to his one-man Broadway shows (directed by David Mamet). Still, don’t expect any secrets to be spilled. A magician doesn’t reveal his illusions, and Jay is as guarded with his personal life as he is with his professional secrets. Just like his act, it’s a matter of misdirection: Jay tells captivating stories about the magicians who mentored him and the culture of magic that he loves. He’s such a seductive host and storyteller that we get through his entire career without learning much about who he is.

What we do get is an entertaining and loving roll call of obscure figures like Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso, and “the greatest sleight-of-hand artists in the world,” Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon. Jay makes you feel as if you’ve been invited into their society, to share in their camaraderie and mentorship. Even if he’s a cipher about his personal history, you learn enough about Jay’s character from the respect and affection he lavishes upon his teachers.

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