Well structured and dynamically edited, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” relies on the famed magician himself to wax autobiographical with his usual charm, humor and panache. Jay’s fascination with the history of his craft — conveyed here with 19th-century illustrations and 20th-century kinescopes, tapes and film excerpts — and his vision of himself within an evolving tradition of legerdemain seamlessly enlarges the film’s perspective. Directed by Molly Bernstein and co-helmer Alan Edelstein, this thoroughly engrossing, highly entertaining docu should delight fans and newcomers alike, meriting theatrical play before cable snaps it up.
Assembled more or less chronologically, “Deceptive Practice” begins with Jay’s grandfather Max Katz, an amateur magician of some note. Katz is shown in photos, one-sheets and newspaper stories that date back to when he started appearing with 7-year-old grandson Ricky. Jay then proceeds to conjure up past magicians, referencing friends of his grandfather who took him under wing, teaching him their simpler tricks and initiating him into the art that became his lifelong obsession. Archival clips illustrate the magic acts that keenly impressed young Jay: A monocle-wearing Cardini wearily tries to rid himself of cards that keep reappearing in his hands, while Flosso draws a rare laugh from Ed Sullivan as a river of coins flows from the host’s nose.
Jay’s move to California launched what he describes as an immersion course with two even more influential prestidigitators, on whom he expounds at great length, supported by numerous visual materials from the vault. Indeed, there is almost as much footage of dapper Dai Vernon and reclusive Charlie Miller as there is of Jay himself, so profoundly does he identify with his mentors.
A montage-heavy rundown of Jay’s early days on TV, while still in college, includes a gig at the Electric Circus wedged between Timothy Leary and Ike and Tina Turner; a slot on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” alongside the Sex Pistols; and frequent guest shots on talkshows with Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and especially Dinah Shore.
Well represented, once his career takes off, are Jay’s many books, one-man shows and smallscreen specials, highlighting his incredible card-trick skill and incomparable showmanship. A British journalist emotionally recalls Jay producing, for her alone, a version of a 19th-century tour-de-force illusion involving the sudden materialization of a large block of ice. David Mamet also appears, discussing his collaborative friendship with Jay as director of several of the magician’s theatrical outings.
In the docu’s present-tense passages, Jay usually sits at a green felt-covered table in front of a three-paneled mirror, endlessly manipulating a deck of cards — the “52 Assistants” in the title of his one-man show, and a source of limitless amusement.