I like watching card tricks. You know the guy is pulling a fast one on you, but having no idea how he does it is the best part of the bit. I actually don’t want to know what sneaky thing he has up his sleeve; that would take away from the enjoyment of the whole experience. One doesn’t get that incredulous ‘How on Earth did he do that!’ feeling every day; therefore, an effective and well-performed magic trick is something to appreciate and make you smile.
Ricky Jay is widely considered to be one of the best sleight-of-hand artists in the entire world. He started performing amateur magic acts as young as four years old and has studied the art and science of magic his entire life. Jay may look familiar to you on screen because he is frequently employed as a supporting actor by David Mamet in films such as State and Main, Heist, and The Spanish Prisoner. The man is a natural performer; he has been in front of crowds for so long he is an expert at holding your attention and building suspense until the final ‘Aha!’ moment.
Seeing Jay with a deck of cards in his hands is comforting. Watching him effortlessly perform complicated shuffles and card flips is mesmerizing. It feels strange to see his hands empty and just sitting on a table or in his lap. Hurry up and get this man a deck of cards! Only an obsessive who practices 8 to 10 hours a day for years and years could come close to pulling off some of the feats Jay pulls off with ease. How did he get so good? He tracked down the old masters of the craft and learned from them one-on-one.
The journey to learn from the old men who became Jay’s mentors is the meat of the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. There are more mentors in the film than mysteries. Men with names like Cardini and Slydini who were successful on the vaudeville circuit back when a man could still make money travelling from town to town schooled a very young Ricky who was Ricky Potash back then. Later on when Ricky left home, a sore subject he does not elaborate on, he tracked down men like Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, the monsters of the craft in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Deceptive Practice goes through a brief history of the most famous tricksters in the last 100 years or so, the vast majority of them you have never heard of. If you are expecting Ricky to reveal any secrets or tricks of the trade here you will be sorely disappointed. Talking about keeping things close-hold, Jay emphatically explains about the necessity of secrets. If you work day after day and year after year to perfect a skill, why give it away in five seconds to someone who has not practiced it a day in his life? True sleight-of-hand masters only discuss their behind the scenes maneuvers with the next generation if they demonstrate appropriate desire and fortitude.
Incorporating a good amount of aged, black and white, and grainy video footage showing long dead card tricksters and a very young Ricky Potash provides a lot of weight to Molly Bernstein’s directorial debut. The sequential history of previous masters is not exactly monotonous but it swerves into dry history lesson mode for a while until the movie veers back into another Ricky Jay ‘wow’ moment at the card table. Jay noticeably reveres his mentors and has the utmost respect for his profession and wants to convey that to the audience.
Even though his name is in the title, the film is not really about Jay the man. It chronicles the major points in his life story, but we learn almost nothing about his private life – almost all of that information stays off screen. Deceptive Practice stays focused on close-up magic using Jay as more of a guide/narrator. Jay comes off as a wise old wizard and far more professional than any Vegas act or those ‘magicians’ we saw in Now You See Me a few weeks ago.
See Deceptive Practice to watch a scholar share his knowledge and appreciation about an arcane and mysterious subject. Stay away if you just want to sneak a peek at the wizard behind the curtain.
Directed by: Molly Bernstein
Starring: Ricky Jay, David Mamet