Less a magician than a fierce and lovable anachronism, Ricky Jay continues to pull a now decades-long career out of what might as well be thin air. The magisterial mountebank admits as much in Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay; after affectionately describing his tutelage in the 1970s under several aging, L.A.-based magicians (Al Flosso and Slydini among them), Jay marvels forlornly at how he’s watched some of the world’s foremost card-tricksters starve for lack of work. Juxtaposed with a maddeningly thumbnail-sized sketch of the alienation Jay felt at home during his formative years, this brief admission of the “magic” industry’s less-than-booming state offers the documentary a noticeable plangency. (A more appropriate title might have been Desperate Practice.) As the film cycles through Jay’s many skills, and the manner in which he honed them, a portrait emerges of a professional whose various value propositions can practically be ranked by their degree of obsolescence.
And yet, as footage of one of Jay’s airborne playing cards slicing through the “pachydermatous outer layer” of a watermelon makes palpably lucid, devotion to obsolescence is one of the few truly pure expressions of love. A sardonic storyteller, an academic of subjects as highly specialized as they are curious (such as child prodigies or sword-swallowing), and an undisputed master of legerdemain, Jay’s vocational interests know no middle ground. He either becomes so affectionately obsessed with a subject or skill that he practices it to the point of world-class knowledge, or he ignores it entirely. Magic, as well as the legacy of magic, is Jay’s addiction; to watch him work is to experience a contact high that can’t be felt in any other form.
It’s predictable, then, that Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s documentary is at its liveliest when attempting to duplicate the allegedly numinous experience of being tricked by Jay in person. Whatever the merit of his theatrical efforts, which are as much a showcase for his unusual demeanor (his inimitable voice is somehow simultaneously skeptical and naïve, somehow both utterly calm and very nearly always on the brink of shouting) as for his prestidigitatorial talents, some of Jay’s most impressive cons have been pulled off for audiences of one. In the documentary’s most astonishing interview, a British journalist relates how Jay “materialized” a block of ice onto a restaurant table before her, a feat that overwhelmed her to the point of tears.
But despite all the vivid discussion of its subject’s artful trickery, Deceptive Practice never bothers to attempt the one thing we’d expect and hope from a documentary about Ricky Jay: It doesn’t try to bamboozle us. This incongruous concreteness isn’t without virtue; at times, parsimoniously edited archival footage more or less takes over the film, which as a result becomes a kind of piquant, living scrapbook. But after the delight of the doc’s valedictory and uniquely sinister moments fade, which feature Jay impishly reciting a poem authored in his honor by Shel Silverstein, we’re needled by the thought of how the subject himself might have rendered (or distorted) the story of his life if given the chance. Even trapped in the dubious realm of our imagination, perhaps because it resides only there, this F for Fake-style autobiography-that-never-was is a more appropriate salute to the labyrinthine patterns of Jay’s life.