An Honest Liar

Posted by Joel Copling on April 11, 2015

James Randi (or, as he was born in August of 1928, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge) lives a life that is a fascinating contradiction: Ever since his escape from a disenchanted home life at the age of 17 and related inspiration to become an illusionist in the vein of Harry Houdini--at which he succeeded and gained quite the rapturous following under the moniker of "The Amazing Randi"--he has made it his life's mission to debunk psychics and faith-healers. They are nothing more than charlatans, he reasons, achieving nothing but dishonoring an industry like that of the magician business by claiming to operate in the same milieu of psychic inspiration. His career as an illusionist in respectable jobs on TV and live-audience specials (Shock-rocker Alice Cooper, whom Randi thought amusingly was going to be a woman, remembers asking Randi to "decapitate" him on-stage) is as lettered as his run as debunker-for-hire.

"An Honest Liar" is a terrifically entertaining account of Randi's life for seventy of its ninety minutes before making a shift toward a bid for emotion that genuinely works, and directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein have a clear vision for their documentary that goes well beyond mere anecdotes and talking heads. There is no shortage of archival footage for editor Greg O'Toole to wade through here, and the concoction is nothing short of infectious. Randi is a charismatic guy, in his mid-eighties and not having lost a drop of his energy for which a cane cannot compensate. His partner of 25 years, Jose Luis Alvarez, rounds out a unique couple to whom is built a real connection by the end.

He is the subject of the documentary, but boy, does he have stories to tell us about his adventures. The majority of Measom and Weinstein's focus is upon these stories, such as the most prominent one--a rivalry between Randi and Uri Geller, most famous before a stint selling jewelry on the QVC Channel for bringing to light the advent of psychically bending spoons. In an extended bit of sarcasm as only Randi can deliver, he appears on the talk shows and specials on which Geller previously appeared and enacts the very trick Geller did in order to illustrate that they aren't unique to the man. Anyone can do them, and in fact, he writes a book to that very effect--one wrapped in the guise of a fundamental deconstruction of Geller's ego and abilities.

Another anecdote, which lasts through the middle of the film's fleet ninety minutes, involves a televangelist and faith healer named Peter Popoff. This guy is a piece of work. He devises what amount to weekly scams--opportunities to fake "healings" by stealing people's personal information and "hearing" that information from God, all while expecting an exorbitant amount of tithe for his troubles (This is recalled when we learn of the faux-mystics who claim to be reincarnated vessels for millenia-old deities and demand hundreds of dollars per showcase). Randi outs his schemes by learning that the pastor's wife is simply whispering the information through an earpiece.

"An Honest Liar" isn't particularly ambitious as a documentary on the surface of it, but by the time it reaches the third act, it doesn't matter. Measom and Weinstein have chronicled the life of a true original--a guy who doesn't have the patience for the fakes and the frauds (again, an interesting dichotomy, given his occupation of misdirection). The film then casts doubt on the person closest to him, and the resulting truths are simultaneously part and parcel with everything he rallies against and bitter to their very core. The story turns from a series of amusing anecdotes to a polemic against the fraud of governmental rulings.

Film Information

A documentary directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein.

No MPAA rating.

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on March 20, 2015.