Few had the magic touch quite like James “The Amazing” Randi. Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, the eighty-six year old Canadian-American is much more than just a magician; Randi is a born raconteur and a phenomenal showman. The new documentary about his life, An Honest Liar, opens with archival footage of Randi placed in a straightjacket and hung from the rafters by his feet. A young lady sings “The Magic Touch” while Randi struggles to escape, which he does, just as she is wrapping up the song. Escaping for a straightjacket isn’t really a trick, it’s a skill learned and perfected. The trick is to turn that act into a show, and Randi knew the show inside and out.
Written, produced and directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom (with Greg O’Toole co-writing), An Honest Liar follows the career of Randi by complimenting archival footage with modern-day talking heads interviews (which are especially entertaining thanks to Randi’s gift of gab and his fantastic beard), tracing Randi’s career as a stage magician and mentalist, to an escape artists of the highest caliber (many compared him to Houdini) and to his most known exploits of debunking those that claim to be psychics, channelers, spiritual healers and anyone who trade on other’s faith as a means to make money.
Like most magicians, Randi was well-educated in the tricks of the trade and could spot them easily. He would take down these, to borrow his phrase, “so-called psychics”, most notably Uri Geller, by changing the scenario slightly and asking the psychic to re-preform the trick, which they couldn’t. And there was no end to the length that Randi wouldn’t go to reveal the con. One of his targets, Peter Popoff — a circus tent faith healer — was essentially performing a mentalist act and passing it off as if God Almighty was speaking directly to him. Randi and his team discovered that he was being fed information via an earpiece. When Randi went on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and showed the Popoff footage with the radio audio, Popoff filed for bankruptcy days later.
Randi bent Barbara Walters keys, broke a spoon on Larry King Live and showed countless studio audiences how he could move objects — seemingly without touching them — and perform a myriad of those tricks, proving that anything you can do, I can do too. Randi stopped at nothing to pull back the curtain and show the world the little man in the corner, even going to the lengths of created a fake channeler, Carlos, played by his life-long boyfriend, Jose Alvarez.
The title, An Honest Liar, refers to a surprising revelation in the third act as well as the power of narrative that Randi traded with. As Randi puts it, “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re going to fool you and then they do it.”
As a young magician, Randi opened each one of his show with this disclaimer, “Good evening. My name is The Great Randall. I am a liar, a cheat and a charlatan. I will blatantly lie to you, but for purposes of entertainment only of course. And those lies may not be discernible from the truth.” If only Hollywood had that sort of good sense. I would much prefer that disclaimer in front of a movie rather than be force-fed that bullshit line, “Based on a true story.”