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Few documentaries achieve the degree of thoroughness and compulsive kicks of euphoric enjoyment that documentarian Molly Bernstein delivers with an ease comparable to that of her worthy subject, Ricky Jay — magician, actor, writer, and a veritable walking encyclopedia.
If you don’t consciously know who Ricky Jay is, don’t worry you’ll recognize him immediately from his many supporting acting roles in films such as “Boogie Nights,” “The Prestige,” or ‘The Brothers Bloom.”
However, the role that fits Ricky Jay best is the one he grew up perfecting since the age of four, that of a highly skilled magician. The filmmakers give loving attention in providing incredibly rare archive footage and photos of the magicians who mentored Jay over his long career. Legendary magicians such as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon, and Charlie Miller all figure prominently in Ray’s retelling of his time spent meeting and studying at the feet of his masters. Black-and-white footage of a seven-year-old Ricky Jay performing his act, involving an unlikely pair of small animals, is pretty magical indeed. A plethora of truly mind-blowing tricks follow. Turning a tiny piece of paper into a live moth with his fingertips is one you’ll not soon forget.
Ricky Jay is most comfortable sitting at his practice table with a deck of cards — something he has spent many thousands of hours doing for nearly everyday of his life. His sleight-of-hand artistry is mesmerizing. Like a precious thematic touchstone, the film reliably returns to Ray’s hands as he shuffles and manipulates the cards he uses to blow the minds of audiences with seamless “effects.” Jay talks about misdirection but no matter how closely you study his moves, you can’t catch him.
“Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” has an addictive quality about it. There’s a good chance you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s over. The film speaks to the elusive craft of magic, and to the staggering dedication of its most ardent practitioners. As a consequence, it also speaks to the nature of many types of physical skills that have been devalued to the point of extinction. A few brief clips of Vaudeville performers executing various acts of remarkable precision demonstrate an undervalued kind of human ingenuity.
The film makes its deepest mark with story told by a BBC reporter for whom Ricky performed a specific effect involving a block of ice. Tears come to her eyes as she reveals the tidal wave of emotion that swept over her in a restaurant where the even took place. They don’t call it “magic” for nothing. This movie has plenty of enchantment to spare. Here is the best documentary of 2013, so far. Don’t miss it.
Not Rated. 88 mins.