Whether you’re a believer or just an eager onlooker, magic is an enigma and magicians are generally secretive about their craft or, if you prefer, their art. It’s all about illusion and misdirection — which might explain the lack of many overt and provocative personal revelations from the titular subject of the otherwise engrossing and entertaining documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
These days, Jay is an elder statesman of magic, a consummate performer whose touring show, mounted in various cozy theater spaces around the world, has amazed enthusiastic audiences for many years. He’s also a pretty able character actor when the situation presents itself, as demonstrated by his recurring role in the HBO western series Deadwood, and featured parts in movies as diverse as Boogie Nights, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Prestige, and State and Main. But Deceptive Practice is an overview (albeit a coy one) of Jay’s career and influences, going all the way back to his childhood when at the age of four he began doing tricks under the tutelage of his grandfather, dedicated amateur magician Max Katz.
As a young man, Jay became a familiar figure on the 1970s TV talk-show circuit — a sly, charismatic hipster who rocked the long hair and wardrobe of a post-Woodstock dandy but had considerably more of an edge than contemporaries like Doug Henning. Appearance and slick patter aside, Jay’s a remarkable slight-of-hand performer whose close-in magic tricks dazzled in the unflinching eye of the video camera lens and whose larger magic tricks were done with expertise and flair. And he had a memorable hook beyond his cleverer-and-cooler-than-you persona: Cards as weapons. In addition to manipulating a deck of playing cards in the traditional magician’s fashion, he would throw cards individually like knives into the sides of watermelons and other unforgiving surfaces.
Despite archival photos and footage of Jay back in the day, we learn little about his family life other than his affection for his grandfather. It’s hinted that Jay’s relationship with his parents was less than congenial, and we see a few brief images of him with his wife on a European jaunt. Yet, Jay and the film’s co-directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein are generous with interviews and rhapsodies about Jay’s influences and teachers, including the likes of Flosso, Slydini, Roy Benson, and his main mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller — among the best magicians of the 20th century. Jay’s own commentary about the history of magic and those who inspired him is laden with insights. He’s a captivating speaker. And there is plenty of prestidigitation on display over the course of the movie.
As in the magicians’ credo, trade secrets are not to be revealed. Regardless, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a fascinating peek into an exclusive and uncommon profession — and a unique man.