Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

I know Ricky Jay as an actor, especially his work with writer/director David Mamet. But, the actor got his start on stage with his prestidigitation feats at the age of seven and has never given up his magical art. Jay talks about those magicians who helped and influenced the young conjurer, and those rookie magi who Jay later helped, in “Deceptive Practice; The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”

This is definitely aimed at the niche audience who are fans of magic and sleight of hand and other geeky pursuits. Fortunately, I have been a member of that niche since I was a kid – yes, magic shows were around when I was a child – so this, before the first frame, I am a fan of. And, this first feature work by longtime editor Molly Bernstein showcases not just the talented Jay, but also those who influenced his craft throughout his life.

I was expecting a documentary about magicians to focus on the big name masters of prestidigitation of today, such as David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy. Instead, Ricky Jay and Molly Bernstein bring us an entertaining look at sleight of hand from the eyes, and dexterous fingers, of Jay. They combine many of Jay’s performances on such notable TV shows as Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore with an entertaining and informative history of modern magic from its earliest beginnings in 1544 through the ages to Jay dedication to the craft.

Jay is liberal with praise for those who mentored him, beginning with Max Katz, a master illusionist who was also Ricky’s grandfather and most influential mentor. Others include Slyndini, Al Flosso and Cardini, who Jay believes to be the best magician of all. I will take the word of this Renaissance man who is renowned as a talented magician, author, historian and actor. Jay and Bernstein embellish on this with remarkable old footage of these masters showing us how the tricks of their trade work…and, not. Magicians are paranoid folk and very protective of how their illusions work.

Much of the film also concentrates on the two men who had the greatest influence on Jay as a professional magician – Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. These remarkable magicians challenged and tested their young acolyte and pushed him to hone and improve his sleight of hand skills. As you watch the many performances that Ricky gives over his many years on stage and television, you know that he paid attention to his mentors, Vernon and Miller. Maybe this is a niche film for magic lovers only, but the remarkable and many feats of magical distraction should just about please anyone who likes to be entertained and challenged – “how did he do that?” popped into my head many times during “Deceptive Practice.” I give it a B+.

Ricky Jay may already be well known to movie audiences from his performances in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, but he is first and primarily a magician, an art he began to learn at the age of four from his grandfather, Max Katz.  It is an art form whose practitioners keep well guarded, and although codirectors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein reveal no secrets, they do delve into "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay."

This documentary's title may be a mouthful, but it is certainly an accurate description. With Ricky mostly guiding (I could swear Dick Cavett narrates some of the film, but he receives no credit), we learn about his love for sleight of hand and the magicians who have influenced him, from the comical (Al Flosso) to the historical (Max Malini), while Ricky himself remains largely in shadow.  Jay is a fascinating character, a consummate performer, but his personal life and pursuits beyond stage illusion are only briefly glimpsed.

The film gives us a recent glimpse of the man performing his hugely popular "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," confounding audience members he's invited to sit on his intimate stage.  The directors continually cut to the man practicing, practicing elaborate card shuffles and cuts in front of a three-paneled mirror and we get the feeling this is his own form of Zen mantra.  In fact, when  he tells the tale of two of his closest mentors, the flashy, debonair Dai Vernon and the more reclusive task master Charlie Miller, he talks of Miller pushing him, doing the same shuffle 16,000 times in one night, and says he couldn't have been happier.

There is great old archival footage - Jay on TV at fifteen, as a long-haired hippie on the Dinah Shore show ('We got on very well,' he says, hinting at something...more?) with Steve Martin, or 'sandwiched' between Timothy Leary and Ike and Tina Turner. There is palpable affection for Al Flosso ('you literally cannot think of Al Flosso without smiling'), as we see evidence of this mentor being the only man to ever crack up Ed Sullivan.  There is talk of Slydini and Cardini, men his grandfather knew with whom the young Ricky studied.  A journalist recounts how Jay astounded her by reproducing a famous Max Malini trick in a restaurant (it involves a cubic foot of ice).

Jay recounts how he left home at sixteen after his grandfather died, family ties severed and that's that.  We're given a glimpse of him shopping with the woman he finally found late in life.  But the real mystery is reserved for the film's end, a story recounted of Ricky performing a trick on the spur of the moment that will leave you speechless.  "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" is a must for anyone who's ever had the urge to pull a coin from someone's ear or even just wondered 'How did he *do* that?'
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