There truly is something mystical about An Honest Liar, that allows it to transcend its flawed structure and be relevant in spite of it. At its core, the ambition of the film is to establish and walk the line between what constitutes an illusion and what rises to the rank of deception. To achieve this, it takes a good, long look at the life of James Randi, renowned magician and skeptic of things in the paranormal.
Going beyond its overarching ambition, An Honest Liar builds on three parts – Randi’s life as an artist, his challenges as a skeptic and his (intertwined) personal travail. The first is as interesting as magic can be, without ever revealing the secret behind tricks – I’m sorry, illusions. But the pace really picks up as the case for skepsis takes shape, trying to untie the blatant lies and manipulation from the willing suspension of critical thought and disbelief. The question of what really constitutes the truth, as expressed through the power of belief, both religious and – ironically – scientific, gets a fair, balanced and creative tackle. Ultimately, Randi’s personal life and some surprising insights into the act of deception lying close to its core, becomes a bit of a meta-analysis of the previous two parts.
The problem is that this last segment mostly fails, because it appears very tangential to Randi’s quest and shifts the focus on fairly mundane personal matters that are contorted somewhat to fit the wider arch.
Yet, it came easy to me to go beyond it.
Just because the directors’ reach exceeded their grasp does not mean that the film doesn’t work artistically, as an expression and an experience of boundary blurring between truth and lies. It achieves this by dragging you into taking a stand by the end, in a narratively artificial yet intellectually testing personal battle for Randi, after seventy minutes of case building and creating an emotional connection with the subject. In that, it is fun and relevant, stressing the strength of belief over fact, over truth and the challenges that lie in dealing with it.