James “The Amazing” Randi is not just a magician – he’s a skeptic, a rather more important calling.
As the subject of the documentary “An Honest Liar,” by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom, Randi comes across as an alternately engaging and crusty old guy. His bushy eyebrows take on a life of their own when he discusses something that gets his dander up – like the chicanery of psychics and faith-healers who prey on the gullible.
As this entertaining and touching nonfiction film reveals, that has been Randi’s most important work over the years: debunking charlatans who profit from their supposed ability to contact the dead or otherwise harness the supernatural.
Though he started as a magician and mentalist, Randi found that he had too much of a conscience to fool people about things that really mattered. So, like his hero, Harry Houdini, Randi made it his mission to expose fakery after he retired from stage performance at 60. He even offered a $1 million reward to anyone who could prove contact with the dead.
So far he hasn’t had to pay that off. On the other hand, he spent his savings defending himself from lawsuits by 1970s’ spoon-bender, Uri Geller, whose act he questioned and debunked.
It’s an intriguing morality, maintained by someone who knows every trick in the book – but uses them selectively. He is depicted as an outsider, one who kept himself apart, though the audience was always interested.
Weinstein and Measom chronicle Randi’s numerous adventures in unmasking frauds. It also details his own pranks, including one in which he created a fake psychic time traveler and sold him as real to the Australian press.
Finally, it examines his personal life and a feat of hiding-in-plain-sight to which he was not only a party but, perhaps, a participant. That reveal is one of the film’s most surprising, and touching.
The filmmakers have exceptional access to Randi, and bring in a variety of expert witnesses on his behalf, including Penn & Teller and even Uri Geller himself.
Randi, now 86, is a fascinating character: quick-witted, still relatively spry for his age, with an air of mystery, even when he’s simply telling the truth. Which is more often than you’d think in a film as intriguing and entertaining as “An Honest Liar.”