Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: An Honest Liar (2014)

Directors: Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein 
Writers: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein, Greg O'Toole
Stars: James Randi, Deyvi Peña, Banachek

“Magicians are the most honest people in the world; they tell you they're gonna fool you, and then they do it.” 

These words are spoken by James Randi early on in An Honest Liar, and they form the conceit of this documentary about the magician-cum-scientific sceptic’s storied life. The 86-year-old Randi regaled Thinkers following a screening of the film at the Metro Theatre last month, and he was nothing but candid on the night. But the documentary sheds a more scrutinising light on Randi’s professional and personal life. Through the medium of film, we are reminded that the mise-en-scène of a particular movie (even a documentary) is merely a director’s subjective interpretation of a given subject. Cuts, dissolves, and wipes are all a form of trickery. Filmmaking is fundamentally an act of tomfoolery, and An Honest Liar is in itself one elaborate, honest lie.    

Any magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but James Randi is not just any magician. Inspired in great part by Harry Houdini, Randi dedicated his early years to feats of escapology. Reckless stunts such as dangling upside down in a straitjacket above Niagara Falls were all part and parcel of the gig. But the human body can only withstand so much, and so Randi would retire as an escape artist and see the industry of deception through a more critical lens. Randi accepts that many people in the world are mentally vulnerable and can easily be swindled by those with a grand public persona, and he considers this a breach of morality. Throughout the film, we are introduced to the cunning tricksters whom Randi has debunked over the years, and we learn how Randi sullied their reputations. The archival footage of Randi stripping Uri Geller’s spoon-bending antics of any “psychic” phenomena is riveting to watch. There are also intense scenes of self-proclaimed faith healer Peter Popoff “exorcising” illnesses from his afflicted followers, which call to mind another documentary in Jesus Camp. These scenes are genuinely disturbing and entrench Randi as a true altruist who doesn’t do what he does for the accolades, but rather to uphold the faculty of reason and the virtue of honesty.

Of course, the film is more than a highlight reel showcasing Randi’s impressive bag of tricks. We are invited to pry into Randi’s personal life, with a fair portion of the film devoted to the 25-year relationship between Randi and José Alvarez. While it’s essential this dimension of the great sceptic’s life is given screen-time, directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein fail to exercise any sleight-of-hand in their revelation of the climactic twist, and the irony of a renowned illusionist being the accomplice to a major ruse with legal implications comes off as heavy-handed. The very idea of including a twist in a documentary film is artistically dubious, as it hints at a desire to fictionalise reality. In a film that grapples with notions of truth, fantasy, and whether seeing is believing, it’s no surprise the filmmakers would be tempted to meddle with real-life narratives in such a manner.

Apart from this misstep, An Honest Liar is a mostly engaging celebration of James Randi which champions the pursuit of knowledge, scientific empiricism, and not bullshitting your fellow citizens. If you support any of these things, you should make an effort to see it. Honestly...would I lie to you?

3.5/5 stars.

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