Ricky Jay’s life poses unique challenges for documentarians, since preserving an air of mystery—along with zealously protecting trade secrets—is pivotal to the colorful, anachronistic persona of this legendary magician, sleight-of-hand artist, card sharp, and character actor. To its credit and detriment, Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay approaches its subject from a respectful distance that preserves the secrecy at the core of his life and art. The film never even attempts to peer behind the curtain of Jay’s colorful existence; it’s content that the show in front of it is spectacle enough. But Deceptive Practices would be a richer, deeper experience if the filmmakers had penetrated Jay’s fierce boundaries even a little.
Narrated intermittently by Dick Cavett, Deceptive Practices uses Jay’s unlikely career largely as a springboard to explore the strange subcultures that shaped him. As a magician and a documentary subject, Jay is all about control and direction; in the documentary’s compelling moments, he shifts focus from himself to the strange band of eccentrics, showmen, and charlatans who mentored him in the dark arts of misdirection, but whose names and legends are now lost to the ages. Glimpses of Jay’s career appear in anecdotes, like the one about him performing at a psychedelic nightclub between Timothy Leary and Ike & Tina Turner. But these stories seldom amount to more than colorful snapshots, before the focus is shifted once again to the often-obscure, sometimes long-dead magicians who taught Jay his trade.
Deceptive Practices reveals only what its subject is comfortable revealing, which is very little. Jay’s wife, for example, is mentioned only in passing at the film’s end. Thankfully, Jay remains a great raconteur and storyteller, even though he’s a slippery, unforthcoming documentary subject. An epic, film-closing performance of a poem Shel Silverstein wrote for and about Jay comes close to redeeming the film’s sometimes maddening lack of intimacy, even as it highlights how strangely absent from the film Jay has been. In Deceptive Practices, the entertainer pays his mentors and inspirations the ultimate tribute by turning a film ostensibly about himself into one fundamentally about all of them. In the process, he manages one more impressive sleight of hand: pulling a figurative disappearing act while remaining in full sight.