If you only know Ricky Jay from his side career – as a character actor looming like a sinister talisman in the films of David Mamet, and in other work requiring an enigmatic and sometimes menacing presence – then you don’t know the man at all.
Molly Bernstein’s “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” will remedy the situation. A charmingly seductive portrait of one of the great illusionists and card magicians of our time (and perhaps of any time), the documentary spans Jay’s remarkable career, from beaming boy – he was little Richard Jay Potash, of Brooklyn, entertaining friends and family with his magic act – to the contented gent he is today. In-between: a colorful parade of conjurers teaching Jay the tricks (literally) of their trade.
Bernstein interviews Jay in the dressing rooms of theaters where he performs, in restaurants, and on the run. There is a wealth of vintage TV footage: Jay with Dick Cavett, with Dinah Shore, with Johnny Carson. Jay talks with wonder about the sleight-of-hand maestros Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso, Francis Carlyle, and Roy Benson, and the two wizards who most shaped Jay’s act and aesthetic: Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, truly a couple of cards.
Jay’s main tool is, in fact, a deck of cards (one of his solo shows is titled “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants”), and the stuff he can do with an ace, a queen, a lowly deuce is not to be believed. Jay’s handiwork will turn grizzled cynics into wide-eyed, slack-jawed kids.
But the beauty of “Deceptive Practice” – which ends with Jay reciting an absolutely riveting poem written for him, about him, by Shel Silverstein – is that it reveals the philosophy behind Jay’s art, a view of life that examines illusions from every which way, and finds meaning in the magic.