Film Review: An Honest Liar (2014)

Who said you can’t kid a kidder? Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s fantastic documentary charts the fascinating life and history of James Randi, born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928, Toronto, who became “The Amazing Randi”, magician, escapologist and latterly, debunker of psychics, fake mystics and charlatans everywhere.

This lovingly crafted film traces the rise of TV magicians, and Randi’s numerous appearances on The Johnny Carson Show, with his brilliant sleight of hand tricks and showmanship which dazzled America in the 50s and 60s, and then later, creating Alice Cooper’s stage guillotine, and performing death – defying stunts like his 1976 escape from a straitjacket, suspended upside down over the Niagara Falls.

An immensely popular showman of wild skills and charisma, resembling a wizard as he aged, he frequently emulated his hero Harry Houdini, but an unfortunate incident occurred live on television in which he got stuck in a giant milk container, and, trying to wriggle free, chipped his vertebrae and was carried off on a stretcher.

Of course, the very public debunking of Uri Geller’s spoon bending and psychic powers (something Geller is still bitter about to this day) as well as his exposing of an evangelical “healer” Peter Popoff through a surveillance expert (who discovered Popoff’s wife feeding information on audience members into an ear piece) are great stories. It’s always lovely seeing con artists get their comeuppance – karma in action.

But it’s the personal stories which are most engaging here: the strained relationship with the distant father of Randi; his running away to a carnival at just seventeen years old, his huge moral objections to those willing to exploit vulnerabilities in the name of psuedoscience, and so on, making him a champion of truth, accountability and decency.

The final irony though, was finding out that his lover, artist Jose Alvarez, had been living his own lie: using a fake passport for twenty five years, his real name was Deyvi Pena, and he had fled homophobic violence, hence taking up a new identity in America. Fortunately, Pena evaded a full prison sentence, after three hours of testimony from friends and supporters.

There’s a happy, and typically eccentric ending to the film, though. He officially came out as homosexual, aged eighty two, and married Pena two weeks after same sex marriage was legalised in 2013.

Randi, who passed away two years ago, deserves no finer a tribute to his incredible life than this insightful, wildly entertaining and moving documentary.

Published by loreleiirvine

I'm a freelance arts monkey. Come see my brain vomit.

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