Hocus Focus: A documentary zeroes in on David Mamet’s favorite magician.
Hocus Focus: A documentary zeroes in on David Mamet’s favorite magician.

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Sorry, David Blaine, but balancing on top of a pillar for 35 hours isn’t exactly magic. Sure, Harry Houdini also performed an endurance test or two during his career. But you won’t see any of that nonsense in Molly Bernstein’s Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a documentary on the titular magician, actor, and all-around mesmerizer who sticks to old-fashioned trickery that he’ll cheerfully perform right in front of your skeptical face.

Jay is a master of sleight-of-hand, particularly with playing cards. Bernstein includes several shots of him seemingly mindlessly shuffling a deck, over and over and over, while seated at a table opposite a low mirror. “It’s almost infinite what one can do with them,” Jay says in voiceover. At which point you’ll probably think, “Hmm, I can build a sorta-tepee…and that’s about it.” And that’s why David Mamet doesn’t love you.

Mamet, director and playwright, has frequently collaborated with Jay, casting him in films (starting with 1987’s House of Games) and directing him onstage (including Jay’s one-man Broadway show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants). Though acting on the big screen has likely exposed Jay to his widest audience, he’s been publicly performing magic since the age of 4 under the tutelage of his grandfather, amateur illusionist Max Katz. Deceptive Practice offers grainy footage of Jay’s early tricks, such as a clip from 1955 when the 7-year-old slickly turned a guinea pig into a dove.

Katz was, obviously, a big influence on Jay’s life, whereas his parents were more of the mind that, as Jay puts it, being a magician “really is a very peculiar profession” and had a strained relationship with their son. When his grandfather died, Jay cut off contact with them and found a new family with prominent magicians, some of whom let him behind the curtain, including mentors Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. The film offers plenty of archival footage of these prestidigitators as well.

And though a significant amount of the documentary focuses on Jay’s influences, Bernstein naturally weaves together tape of her star, from his long-haired days as a young adult performing on, for example, The Dinah Shore Show (where in one segment, fellow guest Steve Martin provides some comic relief—and then apparently sincere surprise) to his more recent stage shows. During the latter, Jay often invites audience members to join him at a table and look as closely as they’d like as he repeatedly and astonishingly fools the eye. As an included New York Times blurb reads, “You aren’t asked to suspend disbelief. You have no choice.”

Jay, who’s here described as frequently cantankerous but comes across both in performances and in the film as a low-key charmer, eschews flash for understatement, usually dressed in a suit and chatting with his audience in a conversational way that doesn’t seem scripted. His ability to make you watch him—or look elsewhere, if that’s necessary for a trick—is formidable even when offstage, such as in the film’s final scene in which he recites a not-short poem about murder by playing cards written by Shel Silverstein. If the doc has a flaw, it’s that even after 89 minutes you don’t really feel as if you’ve gotten a whole lot of insight into the man. Just like a skilled magician, Deceptive Practice leaves you wanting to know more.