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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

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James Randi had a long career as an escape artist and magician, making frequent guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After that first career, he gained even more fame by debunking spiritualists and spoonbenders.

As a booster of the skeptical community, I would have been content to see any documentary, but as a movie lover, I worried that An Honest Liar would be slapdash, preachy, or smug.

Luckily for audiences (and for Randi), An Honest Liar is a solid documentary with strong storytelling. And it even challenges Randi later in the film.

Rainbow Arcs

James Randi, escape artist, debunker, honest liar
James Randi, escape artist, debunker, honest liar

One arc of An Honest Liar follows Randi’s career. From his first career there is footage of his many escapes, plus the notorious milk can non-escape during which Randi fractured two bones and had to be rescued.

From the second career the film shows how Randi exposed as a fraud Peter Popoff, a faith “healer,” who used self-submitted prayer cards, a radio transmitter, and his wife’s assistanc to perform “miracles” which he claimed were gifts from God.

It shows Randi hounding mentalist Uri Geller across TV talk shows - Geller bending spoons and keys supposedly with the power of his mind, Randi with admitted trickery.

The other arc shows Randi in his now-out relationship with his decades-long partner Jose Alvarez.

Deceit For Fun and Profit

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive!”
Sir Walter Scott

The film raises the question about why certain people deceive others. Superficially, the question pertains to people like Popoff and Geller who we can speculate do it for spiritual or entertainment reasons — or more cynically, to con suckers out of their money.

But when the movie needs a jolt, it turns the question on Randi himself. Randi and his colleagues frequently practice deception. One colleague dressed as a security guard to get on-premise during the Popoff event. Perhaps more troubling, two of his cohorts were selected as the only two subjects in a “scientific” study on ESP. The researches spent weeks of their time believing that they were discovering ESP phenomena when in fact they were being taken in by Randi.

Of course, Randi and his colleagues didn’t propose the idea of wasting grant money on an ESP study; they merely showed the scientists that they were being overly willing to be duped.

And Popoff was arguably doing real harm to people by convincing them that their medical conditions where miraculously cured. He told them to throw away their pills and their crutches, when in fact their medical condition hadn’t changed at all.

Personal Aside

Pardon my non-film tangent, but before you argue that “faith healing” may actually make people feel better because of the placebo effect (where a positive outlook or a sense of self-control may actually cause their body to heal faster), consider also the negative effects. When a “faith-healed” person discovers that their diabetes hasn’t been cured, faith “healers” often blame the victim — you’re not healed because you didn’t have enough faith. Far from a positive outlook and a feel-good experience, the long-term effects can be guilt, shame, and ostracism from what had once been their faith community.

I have felt the outrage that motivates Randi. I have family who have been duped by charlatans. And while I sympathize with the fragility and hope — the human nature that makes us seek out people who offer easy answers, I also get quite angry with the shamelessness and arrogance of the perpetrators who take advantage of those traits.

So when the movie wonders whether Randi isn’t also a man of arrogance and deception, it raises the question of equivalence. Is deceit in the name of science and logic really any better than the deceit in the name of religion, entertainment, or commerce?

Actually, yes.

In each case, ask how the hoaxer felt about his lie being exposed. When Randi was done, he wanted to expose the truth. In fact, he exposed it himself. Popoff and Geller would have been happier if the lie had never been exposed.

Honest Lying

By choosing the title “An Honest Liar” the film makes the point that there are different kinds of liars, some better than others. Maybe it could have done more to make the distinction clear, but it’s completely fair for the documentary to raise the issue of hypocrisy. In fact, I think it makes the documentary more intriguing, and more palatable to a wider audience.

Before it’s done, An Honest Liar has a couple more surprises in store for us. One is a major plot point that I won’t reveal here. Another is an on-camera interview with an unlikely subject.

These late-movie developments make An Honest Liar a stronger documentary. But rather than end on a contentious issue, it finds a new emotional connection to Randi, who is now in his late eighties, and sends us out feeling good.

But not too smug.