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The grimacing mug of the Tolstoy-esque old man on the one-sheet for An Honest Liar suggests that this enemy of professional scammers is about to tell his stories with a self-righteous bark rather than the warmth of a nostalgic grandpa.
It’s the face of James Randi, better known to viewers of a certain age as “The Amazing Randi,” a Canadian-born magician, escape artist, and hoax investigator who’s now 86 and living in Florida with his husband, Deyvi Peña. Once Randi decided he was too old to keep swinging from helicopters while swaddled in a straitjacket, he dedicated himself to unveiling the truths behind the performers he regarded as dishonest liars: mentalists, psychics, and worst of all, faith healers.
There are entertaining surprises in Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s documentary as Randi publicly humiliates swindlers like mentalist Uri Geller and “Praise Jee-a-zus!” forehead-pusher Peter Popoff, both of whose methods he revealed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. (Geller, who was unable to pull off a signature trick on the talk show under Randi’s strict prop standards, later responded with the classic line of all the witlessly maligned, “He’s jealous.”)
But the most pleasant surprise is discovering that Stern Poster Randi is actually genial and quite charming, the kind of storyteller you’d be happy to listen to past the doc’s 90-minute runtime. He approaches his projects of debunking fraud performed in the name of entertainment with inarguable intelligence and a sense of service, but also with the zeal of a rascal. When channelers became all the rage in the 1980s, Randi turned Peña into “Carlos,” a 2,000-year-old spirit who allegedly spoke through Peña. Randi printed fictional stories about Carlos in fictional newspapers—but nobody checked their veracity. Instead of opening the public’s eyes, the Carlos Hoax, as it’s known, became so popular that it only deepened his audience’s belief in spirits communicating from beyond the grave.
Randi says of the channeling era, “It was such nonsense. I can’t think of the technical term for it—oh yes, bullshit.” In his interviews for An Honest Liar and in earlier TV footage, Randi is quick with the quips and one-liners, clearly retaining both his sharpness and appetite for fun through the years. (Though perhaps the latter is not so unusual for a man who decapitated Alice Cooper at the end of every show on Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour.)
Aside from Randi’s early comment that he felt like an “outsider” growing up and a late-chapter mention that he was 81 before he came out as a gay man, the directors don’t get hung up on Randi’s sexuality. His life and relationship with Pena is presented matter-of-factly; their status as a couple is both obvious and left alone.
Randi regarded the kind of deception perpetrated by Popoff, who declared himself a healer while emptying believers’ wallets, as despicably unethical; he calls Popoff “a real scoundrel.” (A lesser gentleman might choose a harsher description.) Randi’s intention has always been to enlighten the victims of fraud, to make them wary the next time a trickster rolls into town.
Randi and his cohorts made the fakery of these personalities clear to the public, and that’s what makes the film fun: He explains how they caught them while re-revealing them as frauds. If you’re not already a skeptic, you may resolve to think of Randi’s lessons when some suspicious type next crosses your path.
Still, these sham artists, even the ones profiled here, endure. The film’s question is clear: Why do we keep believing? Randi answers: “The public really doesn’t listen when they’re being told straightforward facts. They’d rather have the romance of the lies.”
An Honest Liar opens Friday, March 20 at E Street Cinema.