An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar tells the incredible story of the world-famous magician, escape artist, and world-renowned enemy of deception, James 'The Amazing' Randi. The film brings to life Randi's intricate investigations that publicly exposed psychics, faith healers, and con-artists with quasi-religious fervor. A master deceiver who came out of the closet at the age of 81, Randi created fictional characters, fake psychics, and even turned his partner of 25 years, Jose Alvarez, into a sham guru names Carlos.


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  • ★★★½ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd

    “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they're going to fool you, and then they do it.”

    A great title for a film that revolves around a magician who is devoted to uncovering the lies told by faith healers and psychics around the globe. The subject of this documentary is James “The Amazing” Randi, who was once a brilliant magician and escape artist, but has now decided to put his talents into use to unmask those people (the con artists) who are making money out of false claims and trickery. The documentary begins with an interview where Randi explains how a magician’s job is to tell its audience he or she is going to fool them and make them wonder how he or she pulled it off. That is a very different thing from a person who claims to have special psychic powers or a special communication with God and use those abilities to lie and deceive people. Randi’s passion for magic and his humanity led him to use his abilities to show others how they are being deceived without ever revealing the trick. The way he went about uncovering these people is what makes this documentary compelling as he creates fictional characters or personas to fool audiences, the media, and even scientists before revealing to them that it was all a scam and proving therefor how easy it is to deceive others when you have abilities to perform these tricks. Randi himself is a charismatic man and we see it through some old TV archives in interviews with Johnny Carson, Larry King, and Regis Philbin.

    The documentary is pretty standard as it goes back and forth between interviews and TV footage, but what makes it stand out is the story it is telling which I wasn’t familiar with. I was so completely unaware of what this film was about that I didn’t even know it was a documentary until it began. In the beginning we are introduced to this great escape artist who marveled audiences with his stunning tricks. He explains he dropped out of High School at the age of 17 to join a circus and that is where his adventures began. Once we are introduced to the man himself, the documentary begins to explore some of the psychics he began to unmask. The first thing Randi decided to do was get his good friend Jose Alvarez to pose as a psychic who is traveling to Australia. They invent several media clips about his accomplishments in the US and once he arrives in Australia he immediately fools everyone because the media never even bothered to check the reliability of the sources they were providing them with. After exposing how easy it is to fool the media, he continues to do so with the scientists as well. There is one great clip about how they unmasked a faith healer named Peter Popoff by proving that his wife was telling him what to say through an earpiece from some prayer requests cards that they had asked the people to fill out prior to the service.

    Despite the great amount of footage shown of how Randi unmasked these psychics they still continued to fool a lot of people. Randi couldn’t understand why so many people failed to acknowledge that they were being fooled and clung on to their beliefs. Then as we were approaching the end of the documentary we were exposed to a surprising and ironic twist that allowed us to view this in a different light. Without giving away any spoilers, Randi himself was being deceived and after the deception he too decided to cling on to his love and accept it. Perhaps the lesson we might learn here as ironic as it sounds is that we choose to see what we want to see and accept the deceptions we want to accept. The twist kind of took everyone by surprise so it wasn’t explored all that much, but it still seemed to make an interesting point to what was being said. Rand’s personal life wasn’t as interesting as his work, but the end justifies why it was introduced in the first place. This was a good watch but it didn’t do anything groundbreaking for the genre.

  • ★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, now we're getting somewhere interesting. James Randi was a stage magician ("The Amazing Randi") who saw that other people were getting rich off his tricks - only they weren't doing them on stage and calling them illusions, they were doing them at churches or on talk shows and calling them faith healing, or psychokinesis, or trance mediumship. So he set out to expose them using his sharpest weapon - his ability to deceive.

    I knew Randi started his public life as a magician, but I was unaware of how accomplished he was; he's described in this film as the best escapologist since his fellow debunker Houdini. His career as a public skeptic has rather overshadowed this period of his life, and it's nice to see lots of archive film and photos of him bursting out of straightjackets and locked boxes.

    There's even more archive footage of him going after various frauds on chat shows, which many people will have seen already. But it's still worth watching them edited into a full account of Randi's career. Cumulatively, they give the lie to the criticism (one I've heard a lot) that Randi has some of the witchfinder's zeal about him, that he sets about harmless frauds with a vigour that makes him look unsympathetic by comparison. I can't imagine anyone still feeling that he's being disproportionate after seeing his take-down of the vile Peter Popoff, the faith healer whose hotline to god turned out to be an earpiece where Popoff's wife told him which congregants were particularly seriously ill and ripe for bilking with his fake treatments.

    There was a little advance publicity about this documentary having an unexpected twist, which I assumed referred to his unexpected, charmingly handled coming-out. In fact, it's something quite different, and without spoiling anything I'm not sure it really gelled with the otherwise jaunty tone of this film. It can be hard to roll with the punches when you're making a documentary, and sometimes you feel a bit like a vulture for trying to come up with the best way to make art out of a hellish situation for someone else. But it might have been better to start with the 'twist' and use it to explore Randi's attitudes and philosophy as he's exercised it in the past. I think that could have worked. Still, even if it ends up feeling like two different films, An Honest Liar is interesting twice, and I'd rather see a film stumble because it has too many ideas than stumble because it has too few.

  • ★★★★ review by sydney on Letterboxd

    ended up with much more to think about than i expected. the Penn&Teller/Adam Q. Mythbusters interviews didn't offer anything useful, but i understand the need for some extra big names to get people to see your movie. and as badly as i wanted to know how all the tricks were done, i appreciate that they didn't tell me.

    one thing has been rolling around in my head non-stop for the last 24 hours: why do people feel the need to fool themselves into believing in psychic powers and paranormal junk when love, the much stranger phenomenon, exists for real?

  • ★★★★★ review by Corey Pierce on Letterboxd

    (HotDocs 2014)

    If you're already a fan of James Randi or a member of any kind of science or skeptic community, this is a must see and you probably already know this is a must see. For everyone else, time to meet James "The Amazing" Randi, possibly the most beloved existing magician, famous initially for his Houdini-ish antics but and later for using his magic/charlatan background for the good of exposing faith healers, spoonbenders, pyschics and the like. This man is on my list of heroes and this documentary more than does him justice, and if anything leaves you wanting much more. Very funny, very handsome and well crafted, with a few surprising turns (if you don't know Randi, and maybe one even if you do), this is a crowdpleasing doc anyone (okay, zealots beware) should be able to enjoy.

  • ★★★★½ review by jolocus on Letterboxd

    I went into this completely blind, I never heard of the Amazing Randi before. I only knew this is about magic, or, to be more specific, about magic debunking.

    James the Amazing Randi is now 86 years old. He started off as an escape artist and magician, but devoted the latter part of his career to debunking "psychics" and other liars. This documentary is about him and this later career.

    The style of the documentary is talking heads, he has interviews from many people (for example Penn and Teller and Adam Savage) who talk about Randi and of course Randi and the people he affected. These interviews are underpinned by old tv footage of shows he was on or that had psychic guests. Every now and then we get title cards about the major evehts that we look at.

    In some points the title cards are weird and don't help at all, one titlecard in particular either didn't make sense or I just missed something on the way.

    The music used fit well, even though it was standard documentary music, nothing new there.

    I liked that, even though at first it seemed like this is a one sided documentary with only Randi fans/friends speaking, in the end we even get some statements by Randis "arch nemesis", Uri Gellar.

    Most of all I love Randis attitude, his mindset. He thinks that you shouldn't trick people, shouldn't play with them, shouldn't be a charlatan. If you were a magician, but didn't say you were and called yourselfna psychic for example, he would come after you. He did this to help people, to raise awareness. And I really enjoy his mindset.

    Also we get to see some cool magic tricks.

    There are by the way almost no tricks explained, he mostly proves that it's just a trick by copying it. On the one hand I would have loved to see some of the stuff explained, on the other hand I understand that a magician never reveals his tricks.

    I really liked this documentary, it had me watching the whole time, was very interesting (probably because I'm a sucker for magic anyway) and even moved me at some points.

    I'm giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars and a like

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