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"An Honest Liar": Revealing and Concealing the Truth 

Wednesday, Mar 18 2015
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Last week in these pages, I complained that the documentary Merchants of Doubt didn't adequately address why humans find deception so entertaining. Now another documentary, with some of the same people in its cast, touches on the same question — but again only glancingly, in a self-conscious sleight-of-hand way. Of course An Honest Liar isn't a call to action, per se, but instead a considerate profile of James "The Amazing" Randi, the gnomish prestidigitator who made his name breaking Harry Houdini's escape records, beheading Alice Cooper for a show, and elaborately debunking spoon-benders and faith healers as a matter of science-minded principle. Deception, Randi says, can be used to conceal the truth or to reveal it, and his authority on this matter is no simple trick. Randi nemeses include Peter Popoff, gropey radio-controlled televangelist, and Uri Geller, subject of retrospectively embarrassing fascination to the Stanford Research Institute and now self-proclaimed "mystifier" and salesperson of crystal jewelry on QVC. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom also spend time with the helpers Randi enlisted to perpetrate his ruthless, if enlightening, hoaxes and other takedowns, including one young Venezuelan man who assumed both a false identity as an immigrant and a secret one as the love of Randi's life. It doesn't quite achieve movie magic on the order of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, but An Honest Liar does entertainingly allow that for our peculiar species, true self-awareness sometimes requires a little self-deception.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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