For people of a certain age, these names may act as a time machine back to the 1970s: The Amazing Randi, Uri Geller, Peter Popoff. All come tumbling back to life in An Honest Liar, an unexpectedly fun (but sneakily forceful) portrait of a rationalist.
That’s not the way James Randi would have been described when he started out. He was a magician—the Amazing Randi, a modern Houdini with a slightly ’50s beatnik vibe—who transformed himself into a full-time debunker of spiritualists, faith healers, and other charlatans. This documentary’s got a clever through-line about deception as regards Randi’s private life and his longtime partner, artist Jose Alvarez. But its main appeal is in demonstrating how skepticism and reason can be rewarding philosophies for passing through life. Randi seems to have taken great joy in exposing flim-flam artists, but there’s a mission there, too, in showing how dangerous it is for individuals, and cultures, to cling to fraudulence. Directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein concentrate on two of Randi’s favorite targets to illustrate his methods. One is Geller, the Israeli mentalist whose great heyday involved bending spoons “with his mind” and other feats of misdirection. We see a choice clip from The Tonight Show as Geller fails to execute an ESP gag—unbeknownst to him, Johnny Carson’s staff had earlier consulted with Randi to safeguard the set against Geller’s routine.
And then there’s the Reverend Peter Popoff, whose shtick consisted of divining the names and addresses of his believers, thus priming them for the faith-healing part of his act. (He also encouraged followers to throw away their prescription medicine, making him a precursor of the anti-vaccination movement.) Randi went public after an investigation (again Carson acts as the benign enabler of Randi’s work) to reveal how Popoff’s wife was feeding him information through an earpiece. The only shadow across the delightful film is that Geller and Popoff are thriving again, along with more current purveyors of magical thinking and science denial. This must be the cause of much forehead-smacking in Randi’s life, but he soldiers on against human nature’s need to believe. All this, and Randi’s puckish, bouncy bearing (he’s 86), make a nice argument that a life of skepticism need not translate into wet-blanketry.
AN HONEST LIAR Runs Fri., March 20–Thurs., March 26 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 90 minutes.