People loooove getting hoodwinked by close-up magic, and Ricky Jay is a straight-up wizard at the art of sleight of hand. Watching him handle a deck is like seeing someone for whom playing cards are a part of the body—as though handling them is the most natural thing in the world.
I didn't recognize Jay by name, but his face was definitely familiar (he's popped up in Boogie Nights, The Prestige, and done a handful of collaborations with David Mamet). He got his start as a youngun—age four!—with a nudge from his grandpa, who was an amateur magician. From there, he continued to refine his skills, learning from craftsmen from the Vaudeville era with pitch-perfect names like Cardini and Slydini, eventually leaving home and heading to LA to hook up with some of the preeminent dudes of the day: Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.
He describes their relationships as a genuine kind of master-sensei connection, and Jay's passion for the history of magic makes him the ideal student (and now teacher). He's fascinated by what came before, and how those old maneuvers could be used to wow new audiences. "Magic is inherently honest," he says at one point. "You tell someone you're going to deceive them before you deceive them. In some ways, that makes it more difficult."
One of the best parts about watching magic is the reaction; say what you will about David Blaine, it's really, really fun to see how folks go fucking nuts when he does his thing. For me, one of the most powerful parts of this doc was hearing a Guardian journalist recount a feat Jay pulled years and years ago on a hot LA afternoon at a busy, sweltering diner, with no gathered crowd or cameras; it was just for her. At the time, she was so astounded by what he did that she actually just started to sob. Hearing her remember the story is worth a watch alone. [Netflix]