Given its subject, it’s fitting that one of the most intriguing aspects of “An Honest Liar” is something that’s not quite seen onscreen even if it is considered. A profile of James “Amazing” Randi, a sleight-of-hand specialist who made quite the career out of performing magic until he decided to turn his attention towards debunking those who would use such trickery to con people, the film also serves as a compelling study of what it takes to sell a trick, not only from the pragmatic point of view of the performer, but the psychological needs of an audience. Throughout “An Honest Liar,” filmmakers Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein show how Randi or the people he would ultimately reveal as frauds earned the credibility required to eventually fleece a crowd, diverting their attention or engaging them in a way where emotion would supercede logic.
With the means available to it as a film, specifically in terms of editing, “An Honest Liar” attempts the same trick in recounting Randi’s life in a compelling way and is mostly successful, though when faced with explaining why, one runs the risk of spoiling it. On its own, Randi’s transformation from a performer to a professional skeptic is intriguing enough, which the film tracks from his humble origins in Toronto to becoming a fearless escape artist before taking to task believers in the paranormal and purported faith healer Peter Popoff in the ‘80s. For dramatic purposes, Randi couldn’t have possibly have found a better bete noir in mentalist Uri Geller, whose flashy style clearly irks Randi as much as the supernatural explanation of how he’s able to bend spoons with his mind and even after Randi is able to disprove Geller’s act on the biggest platform possible on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the two’s ongoing antipathy towards one another provides a strong engine for “An Honest Liar” to push ahead its story, particularly with fellow conjurors such as Penn Jillette and Jamy Ian Swiss weighing in.
Yet there’s another story “An Honest Liar” aims to tell involving Randi’s relationship with an artist named Jose Alvarez that could be another film entirely and the way Measom and Weinstein construct the film, it can sometimes feel that way. Introduced via a segment of the game show “To Tell the Truth” that Alvarez appeared on, the Venezuelan immigrant who becomes Randi’s companion has a tale that defies belief far more than anything the magician ever tried his hand at on stage. For a man who prided himself on being able to find his way out of any shackles that were placed on him, Randi finds himself at the mercy of forces that for once are completely out of his control.
In metaphorical terms, Measom and Weinstein hit pay dirt, as they frequently return to Randi’s rumination about what people choose to believe, insisting at both the beginning and end of the film, “No matter how smart or how educated you are, you can be deceived.” Yet the personal story of Randi and Alvarez’s relationship doesn’t fit as smoothly alongside the sections on Randi’s professional life as much as the filmmakers might like. The two purposefully withhold certain information that may heighten the shock value of the film, but it also deprives the audience of a more satisfying conclusion since the revelations that come out about Alvarez are sudden and slightly rushed.
Still, while not quite extending the same amount of care as Randi would in one of his tricks, Measom and Weinstein do well by their wily subject, who even in his eighties clearly hasn’t left entertaining behind to judge by his long, bushy beard. Joel Goodman’s bouncy score and a selection of smartly curated clips from Randi’s eclectic career that saw him as a favorite of nearly every talk show imaginable keep the energy high. However, nothing compares to the momentum of a great story, and though “An Honest Liar” may occasionally get a little too crafty for its own good, when it works, it’s pure magic.