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Film Review: In 'An Honest Liar,' An Illusionist Faces His Own Truth

Courtesy of James Randi
James Randi

In the 1970s and '80s, a magician known as the Amazing Randi was a favorite talk show guest for the wryly entertaining way he debunked his fellow illusionists, evangelical faith healers, and psychics alike. Holding truth above all else, Randi was unafraid to strafe such media sensations as the psychic spoonbender Uri Geller and the fire-and-brimstone televangelist Peter Popoff, who supposedly heard messages from Jesus about ailing members of his audience — the words actually came from Popoff's wife, shamelessly relaying audience members' prayer requests into a tiny radio transmitter in his ear. 

But An Honest Liar, the compelling new documentary from Justin Weinstein and Taylor Measom, reveals that Randi’s relationship to his own truth was cloudy and sad. The young James Randi was intoxicated by Harry Houdini and eventually recreated some of Houdini’s most famous stunts – such as escaping a strait jacket while suspended over Niagara Falls – and hoping to beat his idol’s time. Also struggling with the feeling that he was different, Randi eventually came out as a gay man at the age of 81.

As demand for escape artists dwindled, Randi discovered his true calling: Challenging those who shared his fondness for illusion yet didn’t have the same moral compass. Among the people and claims he challenged were homeopathic pill pushers, bare-hand surgeons (a particularly grisly spectacle), New Agers who said they channeled 35,000-year-old spirits, and those who professed to being kidnapped by aliens. He built a career out of recreating their acts while ripping back the curtain on their flim-flamming ways.

Randi’s battles with Uri Geller seemed to be based more on personality conflicts than the true unveiling of a genius trickster, and they’re still trashing each other today. Randi was particularly proud of exposing how Popoff’s ministry viciously swindled so many gullible people. We see footage of revival-like gatherings in which parishioners throw their medications and canes in the aisle, though we know Popoff has lied to them about how he got their personal information. It's doubtful he arranged many follow-up visits once he'd banked their money.

An Honest Liar consists largely of vintage talk-show footage showing Randi and his biggest targets, and Randi's frequent chats with Johnny Carson. Yet Randi is still alive and kicking, now married to his much-younger partner of almost 30 years. Toward the end, a legal question about his partner’s immigration status seems trumped up and a little melodramatic, though Randi’s grief about his husband’s possible deportation isn't. It’s another bit of truth for a man who held many falsehoods up for ridicule.

An Honest Liar | Dir. Justin Weinstein and Taylor Measom | 90 min. | Playing at the Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 913-383-7756

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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