“The public really doesn't listen when they're being told straightforward facts,” says the Amazing Randi. The magician, escape artist and tiny lion of principled skepticism, now north of 80, leans forward in a black chair, all knees and elbows and Old Testament beard. If it weren't for that sharpie's suit he's wearing, the kind that looks like it has face cards slipped between its every seam, he could be some wise-wizard marionette rigged up by the Henson Workshop.
Randi is dismayed, thinking of frauds he's exposed, truths he's fought for, and the fact that America still hasn't run its psychics and UFO abductees and flim-flam preachers out of the country on a rail. “They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them than really think about what the truth might be,” Randi says. “They'd rather have the romance and the lies.”
Randi, of course, made truths romantic. An Honest Liar, the joyous new doc that plays more like a greatest hits compilation than a biography, treats us to his feats of Houdinism: squirming out of a straitjacket, trussed up by his feet, on Cross-Canada Hit Parade in the 1950s, timing his escape with the final notes of some chanteuse crooning through “(You've Got) The Magic Touch.” (She's good, but she ain't the Platters.) In '76 he pulls another straitjacket stunt hanging over Niagara Falls — and that's just a year or two after he built the stage guillotine that allowed Alice Cooper to behead himself in concert. (Not a fan, Randi tells us he assumed at first that Alice was a woman.)
But the film's heart, like Randi's, is in the penetration of illusion rather than its manufacture. The filmmakers are generous with clips of Randi's public debunking of conmen: Spoon-bending fraud Uri Geller looks helpless on The Tonight Show when Randi is allowed to introduce a control element into the psychic's demonstrations of his power. Almost as good: Randi proving to a young Barbara Walters that it's quite simple to duplicate Geller's stunt of bending a key with his mind. (Uh, it's not actually with his mind.) Walters looses a weepy cry more comic even than Gilda Radner's impersonation of her.
Younger viewers might find the many clips of Randi and Geller on talk shows astounding for another reason: The best thing we could find to put on TV 40 years ago was a dude pretending to bend metal?
The highlight, of course, is Randi's exposure of the faith healer Peter Popoff, who encouraged his adherents to chuck out their medicine and let God treat their cancers. (Today, governors such as Sam Brownback of Kansas make that official policy.) Popoff pretended that God was whispering to him the ailments of the believers at his revival rallies, but Randi's team proved that the whisperer was actually Popoff's wife, into the huckster's earpiece, reading from notecards the crowd had filled out beforehand. Like Randi's first takedown of Geller, this was broadcast on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and Randi cherishes Carson's amazement when the gag was revealed. That itself looks a little magical in hindsight. Late-night talk shows offering surprises, and operating, even occasionally, in the public good?
In 2010 Randi outed himself as gay, a fact the talking heads here sometimes tease ironies from: Was the great truth-teller hiding truths himself and blah blah blah? His late-life openness about who he is and how he lives builds to a dramatic final couple reels, as Randi's longtime partner, Jose Alvarez, lands in hot water with the government over some duplicity of his own.
In the end, though, despite Randi's disappointment in us — Americans have, after all, continued to allow Popoff and Geller and the like to make quite profitable livings — the film reveals itself to have been a comedy all along: It wraps with a wedding.
AN HONEST LIAR | Directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom | Abramorama | Nuart