Watching this documentary will not give you any insight into how Ricky Jay actually does his craft. He’s the best sleight-of-hand guy around, someone who can boggle your mind with only the help of his hands and what he calls his 52 assistants (a deck of cards). He can make aces take on lives of their own. He can throw a playing card so hard and so accurately, it will pierce the skin of a watermelon. And he’s equally adept at the old cups-and-balls routine.
But Deceptive Practice doesn’t consist of any Penn & Teller sort of revelations. It’s about, as the title suggests, the people behind Jay; the great magicians he grew up watching and emulating, and the chosen few who took him under his wing to teach him their secrets.
The film has plenty of footage of Jay as a performer — when he was 7, still using his real name, Ricky Potash, and when he was 14 and calling himself Tricky Ricky — along with TV appearances over the years (some of them with below-the-shoulder hair), as well as clips from his dazzling one-man close-up shows in which he’s as much a raconteur as he is a magician. But there’s also remarkable archival footage of his teacher-heroes: Dai Vernon, Charlie Moore, Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini. A particularly funny one of the goofy Flosso shows him cracking up the almost always stone-faced Ed Sullivan by making coins flow from his nose.
The film looks in on Jay during private meditative moments, sitting in some nondescript dressing room in front of a mirror, calming his pre-show nerves by repeatedly shuffling and fanning a deck of cards. “Practice, to me,” he says at one point, “was never anything but pleasure.” But he also takes many opportunities to quietly yet enthusiastically open up about and pay homage to those important men in his life, and to rue the fact that the style of personal mentoring he was privileged to receive is likely gone.
Some viewers might be disappointed that we don’t learn much about Jay. We find out that he caught the magic bug from his amateur magician grandfather Max Katz, but there are only brief mentions of the antagonistic relationship between him and his parents, and nothing about the difficulties of a show business career. Perhaps the most revealing instant is when Jay says, to himself as much as to the camera, “It really is a very peculiar profession.”