Well before he left home at 17 to join a carnival, James Randi knew that magic was his calling. It became his moral cause too: After pulling off his own shtick as a “mind reader,” the Amazing Randi set out to expose how various brands of spiritualism are built on subterfuge and cheap tricks.
An involving and well-researched documentary finds him well into his 80s and as outraged as ever by the psychics and faith healers whose claims he spent decades debunking. But “An Honest Liar” isn’t simply a career recap or a fond portrait; the movie takes exhilarating turns as directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom follow present-day developments in Randi’s personal life.
In a terrific selection of vintage TV clips, some shown at length and others flipping by like an expertly shuffled deck of cards, Randi is variously an escape artist, a fast talker on a mission and a besieged nonbeliever. Among his interviewed admirers is Alice Cooper, whose Billion Dollar Babies tour Randi performed in and helped design. Even Uri Geller, the spoon bender Randi targeted with particular ferocity, speaks to the filmmakers, however evasively, sounding anything but bitter.
Weinstein and Measom zero in on Randi’s canny use of deception to expose deceivers. In his most elaborate hoax, Randi, who came out as gay at age 81, cast his life partner, artist Jose Alvarez, in the role of a New Age channeler. When revelations about Alvarez surface, the story gathers new electricity, pushing deeper into the nature of fakery and asking whether Randi, a man as famous for his ardent rationalism as for his Houdini-like feats, has himself been duped.
“An Honest Liar.”
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theater, West Los Angeles.