It takes a special kind of magic to make a film about Ricky Jay so dull.
If you aren't hip enough to attend off-Broadway theater or win tickets off public radio to your local arts center, you may not know Ricky Jay by name. But you know his face and you certainly know his voice. The longtime master of sleight-of-hand has been doing chat show guest spots since the early 1970s and is a longtime member of David Mamet's film family. He's also the narrator in "Magnolia" and "The Brothers Bloom" and popped up in "Deadwood" and even Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" and, heck, just trust me, you know and love this guy.
His best work, other than those outstanding card tricks you can waste hours watching on YouTube, is acting as the keeper of the flame for a special sort of artistry and entertainment that is very nearly extinct. It's this side of Ricky Jay that "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" dwells upon.
On paper, it is a great idea. I desperately want to hear colorful anecdotes about men like Slydini, Cardini and Al Flosso the Coney Island Fakir. Unfortunately, this film reveals the all too annoying truth about many show business professionals. All they did was work.
By and large, Jay's tales are predominantly about practice practice practice, and there isn't all that much in the way of exhilarating source footage. Furthermore, don't think for a minute that Jay is going to explain how he, or any of the great masters, did their tricks.
There's a decent amount of footage of Ricky Jay wowing audiences (and celebrities) with his magical effects (as the pros call tricks) and his nasal New York accent and flat delivery works in wonderful counterpoint. Jay's untheatrical theatricality is part of what makes his live show such a joy, and why I always get excited when he pops up in a bit part in a movie. "Deceptive Practice," however, makes the decision not to be a concert film or a "life on the road" picture, and stays with stitching together talking head interviews. It is, in my opinion, a poor decision.
If I may continue to throw sand in the eyes of directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, there's not much effort made to keep "Deceptive Practices" visually compelling. Talk about a missed opportunity. Here's Ricky Jay yakking about the last days of vaudeville, other than some cutaways to old timey footage, the interview subjects are in a series of plain old rooms.
There are certainly some interesting stories discussed, like how Jay spent an entire afternoon setting up a journalist for a formidable effect, but as a whole the film is a lot of telling and not showing. "Deceptive Practice" is a solid example of how not every single cool person in the world deserves their own movie, particularly by filmmakers who don't have a singular vision.
To give an example: I'm one hundred times more fond of Ricky Jay and his world than that of Conan O'Brien, whose standup comedy and chat show bore me to tears. Nevertheless, last year's "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" was a fascinating and exhilarating film I plan to revisit. "Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" is something you can catch half of on A&E and not worry about missing the big reveal.