Judge Clark Douglas has nothing up his sleeves.
A remarkable journey inside the secretive world of magic.
I was introduced to Ricky Jay the actor before I was introduced to Ricky Jay the magician. He has appeared in productions ranging from Deadwood to Tomorrow Never Dies, but he's been most effectively utilized in the films of David Mamet. Those films tend to be heavily populated with con men, hucksters and liars of various sorts, and Jay always fits very comfortably within such crowds. He speaks in those films as he speaks in real life: with a calm, reassuring confidence that occasionally tilts in one direction or another but never strays too far from neutral. He's an even more magnetic presence in his acclaimed magic shows, smoothly convincing the audience of the impossibility of pulling off a particular feat before doing it with aplomb. "I know nothing of the 20th Century," Jay admits at one point, and his particular brand of magic seems to support that claim. His work is old-fashioned, deceptively straightforward and delightfully baffling.
Deceptive Practice: Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay proves to be nearly as fascinating and puzzling as one of Jay's performances. It initially seems to indicate that it's going to give us a deeper look at who Jay really is, but it's actually more interested in letting Jay talk about the people who inspire him. The magician waxes eloquent about a host of prominent magicians of the past, speaking with great warmth about their assorted approaches to magic. Over the years, Jay picked up bits and pieces from all of these individuals and used them as a springboard for the creation of his own material. It would seem that nearly every magician owes a great debt to other magicians, and Jay is greatly appreciative of that fact.
However, when it comes to discussing his personal life, Jay is much less generous with the information he's willing to provide. He tersely declares that he parted ways with his parents in his late teens and never reconciled with them, and his colleagues tend to tiptoe around the subject when they're being interviewed. One of Jay's business associates suggests the man has set certain lines that absolutely cannot be crossed under any circumstances, and no one involved in the film (including the filmmakers) seems interesting in crossing those lines. It's not much of a liability considering how compelling everything is, but don't expect to leave the documentary knowing a whole lot more about Jay than you would learn from watching one of his performances.
The most intriguing notion the film presents is the idea that magicians use their tricks as a form of currency. Jay speaks warmly of making bets in which the secrets to certain acts were at stake. It's also quite fascinating to hear David Mamet talk about the way in which Jay determines whether he'll teach an aspiring young magician a new trick: he'll give them a relatively simple one and ask them to do it better than he's ever seen anyone do it before. If they succeed, he'll teach them something else. He respects truly talented aspiring magicians who demonstrate an eagerness to learn, but he also has a deep respect for the the necessary secrecy of his trade.
Deceptive Practice: Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay has received a solid DVD transfer. There's a great deal of archival footage included—some of which looks quite rough—but that's par for the course in documentaries. The new interview footage looks strong, and the Dolby 2.0 Stereo track (highlighted by moody, minor-key instrumental selections) is effective. Supplements include a Q&A with Jay and Mark Singer, a half-hour of riveting performance footage, two featurettes ("Jay's Colleagues on Camera" and "Ricky Jay and Michael Weber on Mentors and Magic"), some unused animation, a promo for Bob Dylan's exceptional album "Love and Theft," a New Yorker piece on Jay accessible via DVD-ROM and a theatrical trailer. A rather interesting and satisfying series of bonus features, to be sure.
Ricky Jay is unquestionably a fascinating figure, and his presence alone makes this new documentary well worth a look. I wish director Molly Bernstein had found a way to give us just a bit more insight into what makes Jay tick, but there's no denying that her film is consistently involving.
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