[AN HONEST LIAR screens Saturday March 28th at 4:20 pm and Sunday March 29th at 11:35 am at Tower City Cinemas as part of the 39th Cleveland International Film Festival.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
When co-directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom began shooting their documentary AN HONEST LIAR, it's subject, stage magician/escape artist turned skeptical paranormal investigator James Randi, had already lived a life more than worthy of a film. What the filmmakers couldn't possibly have known was that during the course of filming, a shocking revelation would come to light regarding Randi's long time companion (now husband) Jose Alvarez. It's the kind of surprising turn of events that some filmmakers might have used to paint their subject in a negative light, while others might have simply swept it under the rug rather than make their subject uncomfortable. It's to Weinstein and Measom's credit that instead they tackle the issue head-on, showing Randi as a more human and fallible figure than his public persona often suggests, all without undermining the important work the self proclaimed charlatan has done in exposing phony psychics, faith healers, and the like.
Having long been a fan of Mr. Randi's, I was very much looking forward to this film. I've read many of the subject's books, but at least the ones I had read focused more on Randi's investigations than on his personal life. I knew very little about his early days, and although I was aware of his career as a stage magician and escape artist, had never seen or heard much about this chapter in his history. And then there was the time Randi spent designing illusions for Alice Cooper's stage show, like Alice's trademark guillotine gag. All that and more gets its due in LIAR, showing how Randi's career deceiving audiences in a completely upfront manner helped fuel his disdain for those who would use the same tricks of the trade to pass themselves off as having real powers.
As for Randi's career as a paranormal investigator, the film hits all the major highlights. Of course there's plenty here on alleged psychic Uri Geller, Randi's nemesis for many years. Somewhat surprisingly, Geller himself even agreed to be interviewed for the film. LIAR also covers Randi's exposure of faith healer Peter Popoff, as well as a couple of hoaxes Randi perpetrated for the purpose of showing how easily even scientists and journalists could be duped by paranormal claims. One of these hoaxes involved Alvarez passing himself off as a channeler named Carlos. As it turns out, Alvarez was participating in another deception, as well. A deception that started to fall apart while AN HONEST LIAR was being filmed, and which gives the film much of its drama and pathos.
For the most part LIAR takes the usual “talking heads” documentary approach, with Randi's head doing a good portion of the talking. In addition to the aforementioned Geller, the film also includes interviews with fellow magicians and paranormal debunkers Penn & Teller, “Mythbusters” co-host Adam Savage, shock rocker Alice Cooper, science guy Bill Nye, and a handful of other magicians, scientists, and associates of Randi's. And of course, Jose Alvarez, who talks candidly about his life with Randi, his deception, and how the one affected the other. It would have been nice to see a modern day interview with Popoff, as well, but one can understand why he might not have been as keen on participating as Geller, who has always been more of an entertainer even when he was claiming to be something more (he now calls himself a “mystifier” rather than a psychic, whatever that means,).
Will AN HONEST LIAR change any minds? Maybe a few, but as recent debates over issues like vaccinations and climate change have shown, facts and evidence seemingly have little impact on what a great many people believe. Then again, I know personally that discovering Randi and his skeptical way of looking at extraordinary claims when I was in my early twenties did have a major impact on my thinking, so who knows. Either way, whether you love Randi and what he stands for, or hate every bone in his body, the man's story is a fascinating one, and Weinstein and Measom have done an excellent job of condensing it into a nicely paced and informative 90 minutes. 4 out of 4 stars.