“An Honest Liar” is a highly entertaining portrait of James “the Amazing” Randi, a magician-cum-escape artist who, like his role model, Houdini, eventually turned his primary attention to debunking professional mystics, telepathists and other “supernatural” charlatans. Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s documentary bounces along enjoyably on a sea of archival clips from Randi’s high-profile career, with latter-day input from numerous celebrity pals (and at least one famous foe). It gains added dimension from the subject’s late-in-life coming out as a gay man, and from a different sort of “coming out” by his longtime lover, who turned out to be hiding a secret identity. Prospects are good for niche home-format sales and limited theatrical release through disturb Abramorama.
Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Randi joined a carnival at age 17 as an aspiring conjuror. His magic and escape stunts (he eventually broke several Houdini records in the latter realm) soon made him a popular television guest: The pic begins with a doozy of a 1950s broadcast excerpt, as he writhes his way out of a straightjacket while suspended upside down. (This act takes precisely as long as it does an adjacent chanteuse in an evening gown to sing “You’ve Got the Magic Touch.”) Later he’d make appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “Happy Days” and other leading national programs. He even contributed stage illusions to shock rocker Alice Cooper’s highly theatrical ’70s concert tours.
Yet increasingly, his appearances weren’t performances per se, but rather demonstrations of what he’d uncovered investigating those who practiced “magic” in other, less admittedly tricksome ways. He exposed televangelists and faith healers who claimed paranormal powers, yet were revealed as having been fed audience-member secrets via hidden earpieces. A particular target of his ire was spoon-bending ’70s “superstar psychic” sensation Uri Geller, who was unable to pull off his usual psychokinetic deeds when Randi covertly tamper-proofed Geller’s props before a Johnny Carson broadcast; Randi went around showing audiences how he, too, could bend spoons and such through simple techniques.
After Geller managed to convince curious researchers of his powers in a lab setting, Randi cast younger colleagues as fake mentalists to prove that even scientists could be fooled by basic magician’s trickery. While Randi is an unrepentant, even obsessed debunker who’ll justify any tactic to prove his point, it’s poignant to hear some of these former collaborators recall their eventual guilt over deceiving well-intentioned academics who earnestly believed they were accumulating evidence of the paranormal.
Randi didn’t come out of the closet until just a few years ago, at age 81. By then he’d already long been in a relationship with Jose Alvarez, an artist and, briefly, a phony psychic channeler (for an Australian “60 Minutes” expose on spiritualist frauds). “An Honest Liar” gains a surprise element of present-day drama when this much younger partner gets into trouble with the law for a decades-old private deception of his own. (Perhaps an equally surprising development in the film’s later going arrives when Geller agrees to be interviewed for a documentary about his archnemesis.)
Now in his late 80s, Randi is an antic, engaging subject with a showman’s streak of hambone intact. Other interviewees run an interesting (if almost exclusively male) gamut, including fellow illusionists Penn & Teller and Bill Nye. Lively editorial mix makes the most of a rich archival-footage array, and overall assembly is expert.