Fans of both magic and film have plenty of reason to know Ricky Jay. When holding a deck of playing cards in his hands, Jay is one of the world's most talented illusionists, and he's not too shabby with the cup and ball trick either. Furthermore, even those who haven't seen his show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" or caught any of his other appearances, he's become a big-screen staple in the films of David Mamet (who directed "52 Assistants", and gave Jay roles in House of Games, Heist, and The Spanish Prisoner, among others) and Paul Thomas Anderson (for whom he most famously narrated magnolia). Considering his friendships with two of the most well-known and acclaimed filmmakers of the last 20 years, it's only fitting that someone would decide to make a movie about his life.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is exactly what it says it is, filtering the man through the people who helped him learn his craft. Those looking for a standard biography, or even some of the secrets behind his tricks (yeah, right), will be out of luck. Although the film does loosely trace Jay's life childhood to adulthood, Jay is mostly quiet on personal experiences, making only passing references to parents which he didn't get along with. His recollections of famous illusionists such as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon, and Charlie Miller are presented through his eyes, with the spotlight on those men and their craft, and the viewer is left to fill in the way those people have influenced Jay's work.
Director / producers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein are particularly lucky in that even the magicians that taught Jay who were most prolific in the 1930s and 1940s made the occasional TV appearance in their twilight years, providing an incredible wealth of fascinating vintage footage for them to draw on. Although Jay can explain the principle of an illusion or a technique all he wants, to see many of these masters perform really helps understand what aspect of their techniques Jay assimilated into his own stage act. Everyone understands a principle like misdirection, but it's something else to see Slydini actually doing it. The filmmakers also have the benefit of Jay's own extensive archive of photographs, journals, and other ephemera that he has collected over the years (Jay has published several books on the history of magic).
The filmmakers are also blessed with a forthcoming set of interviewees, including Jay's close friend Michael Weber, who also studied under Charlie Miller and co-founded Jay's company, Deceptive Practice; Jay's longtime manager Winston Simone, who helps fill in some of Jay's personality, and David Mamet, who talks briefly about the things about Jay's persona that draw him in (Jay's film work is mentioned, but not discussed in the film). There are also two absolutely wonderful eyewitness accounts, by Sensei Fred Neumann, and journalist Suzie Mackenzie, both of whom have a sparkle in their eyes and a genuine sense of wonder in their voices when recollecting an illusion Jay performed for them that is especially wonderful. Nearly all of the memories on display are warm, and even those that hint at Jay's sometimes prickly demeanor only add to his image.
Of course, the real "get" is Jay himself, who dominates the documentary with his wonderful storytelling ability and sharp wit. Bernstein first approached Jay with the intent to do a documentary back in 1994 or 1995; since then, the filmmakers have sat down and recorded new recollections whenever possible. Although the finished film only runs 88 minutes, nearly every minute of time spent with Jay is packed with information -- the cream of the crop. On paper, a history lesson about the craft of magic might sound less intriguing (or revealing) than a look into Jay's personal life, Deceptive Practice uses Jay's passions as a mirror to reflect the man -- no sleight of hand involved.
Deceptive Practice arrives with classy artwork duplicated from one of his performance programs, created by artist Larry Vigon, depicting Jay's face on a group of playing cards. The back cover is equally straightforward, keeping the subdued brown tones of the front cover. An elegant design for an elegant speaker. The single-disc release arrives in a standard Amaray case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Of the footage shot specifically for Deceptive Practice, there's only a little bit of variance in the quality of this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. For the most part, the film looks very good, with a tiny bit of digital video harshness creeping in in the white areas, and on the whole, the disc is more than adequate. Footage from Ricky Jay's performances is presented in good quality, and most of the photographs and documents scanned for the film are nice and crisp. Only the archive footage shows any serious wear and tear, and none of this is unusual for a documentary.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track seems almost unnecessary for such a quiet film that mostly involves Ricky Jay's distinctive voice, but I suppose it's nice to hear the original score by Claire and Olivier Manchon spread out to the surround channels. The same minor variance in the picture quality applies to the sound as well, with the occasional additional hiss of an interview recorded outdoors. An English 2.0 track is also provided, but regrettably, no subtitle or caption streams.
Additional footage is the order of the day here -- a surprising amount of bonus material is packed onto this one-disc release. "Jay's Colleagues on Camera: Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve Martin, David Mamet, Etc." (19:33) features Martin's "Great Flydini" routine, and recollections from Anderson and Heather Graham, Mark Singer, and David Mamet (sourced from the same interview that appears in the film). The interviews are a little dry, it's not surprising they didn't make the final cut of the film. "Ricky Jay and Michael Weber on Mentors and Magic" (15:22) is a similar, but better chunk of footage with Jay and Weber reminiscing further about Dai Vernon, as well as Weber performing a rubber band trick (which, sadly, is nearly invisible -- the extras footage is all extremely low-res, likely to maximize the amount of additional material that could be included). Best of all, "Never Before Seen Performance Footage and Crazy Anecdotes" (29:29) gives the same treatment to many of the additional clips used to flesh out the final product, featuring several additional Jay stories in their entirety. In case that isn't enough, even that is then trumped by "Ricky Jay and Mark Singer at the New Yorker Festival" (47:19), an incredibly lengthy panel discussion between the writer and performer. Sound is occasionally a bit sketchy, but worth the effort. Finally, "Unseen Animation" (1:17) offers a brief reel of transitions that didn't make the final film (probably for the best, although I imagine it'd have gotten a polish were it approved), and a promo (1:09) for Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" featuring Jay closes things out.
An original theatrical trailer for Deceptive Practice is also included, as well as a .pdf of Mark Singer's profile of Ricky Jay, accessible via DVD-ROM.
Fans of magic will not want to miss Deceptive Practice, a great primer on past masters who helped inform one of the present ones. Highly recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.