Turns out, Ricky Jay is one of those guys who has to sit in the restaurant with his back to the wall. That’s not just because the sleight-of-hand master and historian of magic is—as interviewees in this new doc attest—a cantankerous sort who is thick with the great card-sharps of the age. It’s also because, for all his onstage triumphs, Jay, like the great Max Malini, prizes the impromptu deception—the apparently spontaneous performance of a miracle—as his art’s finest expression. Deep into Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a reporter for the Guardian, recounts a long afternoon with Jay, whom she was profiling. They wound up in a corner at a bustling Sunset Boulevard taco joint, where, with his back to two windows, Jay worked a trick so grand that if someone had pulled it in Old Testament times we might have a competing set of gospels. The reporter describes bursting into tears—this feat of consummate prestidigitation, executed just for her, over lunch!
I’ll not spill what the surprise was, just as Jay and the doc’s talking heads would never dish how it (or most anything else) was done. Instead, let’s just say that this introduction to Jay’s world and his most secretive fraternity always keeps its back to the wall, too, the better to dazzle you with its clips of Jay pulling astonishments minor and major with the decks of cards he is forever just unwrapping from their plastic. So supreme is his command of distraction and informative patter that the revelation—the wait, how is it that card?—often hits when you’re not anticipating it. Sometimes, his feats are so subtle he has to point them out after they’ve happened, as when he somehow flings two cards across a stage and into the flesh of a watermelon, landing both in the very same thin slit.
Jay is as much student as master, and directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein are never stingy with footage of the magicians with whom Jay has studied: Cardini, Slydini, Francis Carlyle, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon, and more. But what sticks with you is Jay, supremely calm, his body’s every stray movement natural and normal even as you come to suspect that they’re anything but. We see him at age seven, in 1955, working a routine with a bunny and a cap pistol in a darling act he called Time for Pets; we see him in the ’70s, on The Dinah Shore Show, getting baited by his cagey pal Steve Martin into a seemingly hopeless bet. We see mad and gorgeous excerpts from his library of magic guides and posters and paraphernalia, dating back centuries. We see clips from his one-man shows, in New York and in London, where audience members seated directly beside him can’t spot his techniques. We even see him in recent years, baffled by which buttons to push to work the everyday miracles of a cell phone. Best of all, we see him sitting right there in front of the camera today, shuffling a deck, performing impossibilities, again and again, like he’s just making them up as they come to him. Here’s a movie with magic.