“Cards are like living, breathing human beings,” says illusionist Ricky Jay in the irresistible documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” effortlessly dealing and shuffling and manipulating a deck as if each card had wings. A magician since childhood (the film includes charming clips of his long-ago days as “Tricky Ricky”), Jay, now in his 60s, is considered one of the world’s great sleight-of-hand artists. “Deceptive Practice” lets us peer up close at what he’s doing — camera tight on the cards, Jay’s sleeves pushed up — and we still don’t know how he does it; for lack of a better phrase, it’s like magic.
The film isn’t so much a portrait of Jay, who doesn’t seem to like talking about his personal life (all we learn: he didn’t get along with his parents, and he married seven years ago for the first time), as an homage to his mentors in magic. Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Al Flosso, Cardini, Slydini … the names may not mean much to those of us outside the magic circle, but Jay speaks of them with reverence and affection. From them — particularly Vernon and Miller (who both died in the ’80s) — he learned the art of misdirection, of watchfulness, of the discipline required to practice a trick over and over. Of his childhood idol Cardini (born Richard Valentine Pitchford), Jay marvels, “He didn’t produce cards — cards appeared in his hand.”
Filled with footage old (watch for a still-brown-haired Steve Martin joining Jay on a decades-ago talk show) and new, “Deceptive Practices” won’t reveal anything Jay doesn’t want us to know. (Except perhaps that this master of sleight-of-hand hasn’t quite mastered his cellphone.) But it’s a pleasure to spend time with him, watching cards fly and learning about the history of what Jay calls “a very peculiar profession.” Maybe we don’t really want to know his secrets; isn’t it more fun, after all, to believe in magic?
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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