DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY
2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
For magicians and those who admire them, card tricksters or -- as they would prefer to be referred to -- manipulators, are second-rung hucksters. Because mainstream magic (think Penn and Teller, David Copperfield and the like) relies so much on sizzle, it's easy to dismiss guys like Ricky Jay who serve up nothing but steak.
"Deceptive Practice" is a documentary about an entertainer and an entertainment art form (and make no mistake, it is an art) that peaked in popularity at the same time as Vaudeville and when the Catskills were the premier American tourist destination. Card tricks are a holdover from a bygone era and are to magic what board games are to their electronic video counterparts or what vinyl is to musical downloads. Keep in mind, however, there are a fair amount of people who still swear by vinyl.
If you've never heard of Jay, don't feel like you're out of the loop. Unless you're a big fan of films made by David Mamet or Paul Thomas Anderson (or are a card trick devotee), there's no reason you should. Portly, in his 60s with a receding hairline and a doughnut complexion, Jay is -- to be kind -- not exactly the textbook, visually ideal entertainer. During his relative heyday in the '70s -- when he was a regular on late afternoon network talk/variety shows -- Jay looked like a pudgier version of Ozzy Osborne in a three-piece suit.
Like many other card masters, Jay's success was attributed to an equal mix of his sleight-of-hand-skills and ability to come up with pithy, distracting chatter/commentary while he performed. His repertoire doesn't stray far from that of those who came before him (that's where the "mentors" part of the title comes into play); he just does it with a lot of gusto. This is especially evident when he uses cards in the same manner some circus performers wield knives. To be sure, it's impressive but it's "coolness" is short lived.
While the stock footage and archival photography (some dating back 60 or so years) is informative and serves as an "artist-as-a-young-man/child" sort of thing, it's exceedingly dry, of interest only to Jay die-hards and often lends the film an unwanted "vanity project" feel.
When not focusing on the nostalgia, director Molly Bernstein begins to earn her keep by giving the audience a peek into Jay's troubled upbringing and the non-existent relationship he had with his parents. Of course it's one sided; we only get his perspective and there's more than a hint of sour grapes but it is highly enlightening and entertaining, warts and all.
Bernstein misses the boat by including only a single clip from one of Jay's acting performances (from an older Mamet film) and completely ignores the huge chunk of Jay's Hollywood resume when he served as a consultant on dozens of high profile (mostly magic or con-themed) movies.
Despite the films' considerable shortcomings, it is Jay reflecting in the present day that keeps everything afloat. Often cranky and blunt he also possesses an endearing, avuncular-like charm, bone-dry sense of humor and total love of his craft that is infectious. (Kino Lorber)