Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Some people are straight-up intoxicating to listen to when they talk about what they love. Ricky Jay is one of those people. He’s an American actor and sleight-of-hand master whom you might recognized due to a card trick — one in which he goes all Gambit-like, flicking cards with enough force that they stick into the tough rind of a watermelon.
It’s pretty impressive.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a documentary that shows such tricks while also capturing something just as interesting — the lives of card sharps and master magicians.
The first half of the movie is basically Ricky Jay talking about the people who made him who he is today. His own story can be summed up in the phrase right time, right place. His grandpa loved magic, and he was trained by many of the best illusionists in the states. Thus, lil Ricky had some serious connections after he got into the practice at the ripe age of 4.
And practice makes magic, the movie shows. Ricky describes learning sleight-of-hand effects as similar to learning martial arts in feudal Japan. You need a sensei. You also need a deck of cards and a room to sit in for 10 hours a day so that you might come up with or master a trick. Such a routine would likely drive me to seppuku. But for people like Ricky, those shuffling meditations are a zen practice, mixing the joy of play with the joy of nearly infinite possibilities.
On film as on stage, Ricky is great. He comes off as generous, unassuming and knowledgeable. He loves nothing more than learning magic, and thus you could say he loves nothing more than magic history. He’s written a number of books on the subject, and Deceptive Practice seemingly lets him just talk on the people who influenced him most — Cardini, Al Flosso and Dai Vernon, to name a few. To me, the movie inspires one of the best feelings a doc can: the pleasure of learning.
This is not to say the movie’s movements are perfect. When Deceptive Practice starts to focus on Ricky — as a man, a personality — things get kind of wonky. First off, Ricky doesn’t reveal how his tricks are done. That’s fine. After all, he’s a real magician. Secrets are how he makes a living. The title of the doc, however, sort of suggests that mysteries are to be revealed. I came away no more enlightened to any given trick than when the movie started.
Then again, the lack of revelations isn’t that big of a deal. I was much more interested in just watching magic tricks. And Deceptive Practice has quite a lot of those. Ricky is consistently mind-blowing. The tricks he and his friend do make you wish magic shows were a bigger part of the culture. The refreshing, laugh-inducing sense of wonder the tricks inspire is something lacking from so much of art, including cinema. Thankfully, film can capture those tricks.
Although this movie won’t teach you how to do magic tricks, it will enlighten you to a subculture — one with amazing characters and unbelievable talents. Deceptive Practice, in my mind, is exactly the sort of film a child might see and think, I want to do that! before running off to type in a search bar: How do you flick cards into watermelon?
Deceptive Practice is playing at the Lagoon Theater.