Pursuits, Rational and Irrational
Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s An Honest Liar doesn’t only present James “The Amazing” Randi as a profile in heroic rationality. Still, this documentary, screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, does do a good job of that, in addition to tracing the roundabout way this 85-year-old magician came by his serial debunking of myths.
A spritely autodidact who ran away from his home in Toronto at 17 to join the carnival, Randi spent the first part of his career as an escape artist in the tradition of Houdini. Today he carries himself like an inveterate showman, as though he was born in the trunk, as they used to say. He had a knack for masterminding the kind of death-defying stunts (getting out of a straightjacket while suspended over Niagara Falls, for instance) that no longer rivet mass audiences. That knack, combined with his Cheshire Cat grin, deft dancer’s movements, and machine-gun-quick quips, not to mention his penchant for velour and hair spray, once made him a near-perfect star for the TV variety and talk show circuit.
The film offers up plenty of vintage images as evidence of these glory days, but what makes Randi’s story unusual is how he turned himself to a different sort of cause later in his career. Disturbed to the point of distraction by the sight of mystics and faith healers fleecing the vulnerable, even if they weren’t technically harming anyone, Randi became committed to telling the truth. According to Randi, it’s okay for magicians to entertain their audiences, as long as they’re honest that this is what they’re doing. As he puts it, it’s fine “to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson.” This crusade that he calls “my battle” makes for a great tale, particularly when Randi literally follows the patently fake mystic Uri Geller from one TV show to the next.
Why Geller’s supposed ability to bend spoons was enough to make him a star will remain one of the great mysteries about the ‘70s. It’s also a bit surprising that Geller makes appearance here, even after Randi’s debunking, in order to dismiss all of it.
The film offers as well some of Randi’s more elaborate sting operations, sprung with the coiled precision of the last act of an old David Mamet script when everything is revealed to be a fake. The most satisfying of these is Randi’s demolishing—on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, where he was a frequent guest—of the supposed faith healer Peter Popof. Randi exposes his preternatural ability to discern things about people he hadn’t met as being relayed to him by subordinates via an ear mike. It’s great theater, as only a career stage magician could pull off, and has the added advantage of uncovering a swindler. Such bracing moments aside, the film also wraps Randi’s exploits into another narrative about truth-telling that presents conflicting opinions on deceptions (understandable though they were) in Randi’s own life. That narrative never quite comes to a resolution.
Lack of resolution takes another form in Hans Petter Moland’s chilly, high-body count revenge comedy, In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten), also at Tribeca. Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is a Swedish snowplow driver living in rural Norway—where there is, of course, lots of snow—when his son, Ingvar, is murdered, and also an affecting variation on the ex-con Skarsgård played in Moland’s A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann), a drier and angrier comedy about life’s inexplicable absurdities. Pity that Kim Fupz Aakeson’s derivative screenplay abandons Nils for much of its time to play deadly unfunny gangster games.
At film’s start, Nils is receiving an award for Citizen of the Year, while Ingvar is hauled away from his airport job by a couple of the hoods whom he helps with their smuggling operation. Oh, the irony. The villains are upset that someone has been stealing their product, so they inject Ingvar with a lethal dose of drugs and leave his body on a bus stop bench. This sends Nils, who spends his life happily and repeatedly plowing the same narrow mountain road (“I keep finding the same path over and over,” he says), into a quiet sort of Scandinavian rage. What follows is like a lowdown take on Point Blank, where Nils finds and executes a series of the henchmen responsible with a minimum of fuss and fury. In a game attempt at mordant humor, each time a character dies, a black title card is put up on screen with his name and a cross.
Above: from In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten) (2014)
Beyond this hard-boiled revenge tale, In Order of Disappearance introduces some distractions, beginning with “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), the prissy gangster who is Nils’ ultimate target. A vegan who hides his cocaine trade behind a line of cupcake bakeries and lathers his home with punchline-bad modern art, the Count is all bluster and rage as his minions are picked off one after the other.
This gets old fast, though not as bad as the stale dialogue (a Japanese character is introduced only in order to make a bad joke about sushi, and so on) that can’t decide whether it’s cribbing from Tarantino’s playbook or the Coen brothers’. More problematically, the film gets so bogged down in how the Count mistakes the identity of the killer coming after his men and starts a war with a rival Serbian cartel (led by Bruno Ganz) that it forgets about Nils for much of its increasingly bloody and strained second half.
If the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain the depths of Nils’ rage, it does offer other pleasures, specifically, breathtaking images and music. Fargo seems a key reference point here, from the strikingly bleak cinematography to a plaintive score that echoes Carter Burwell’s. But as the jokes land with increasingly heavy thuds and even the simplest threads of plot become unraveled in one dead-end subplot after another, the film’s minuses quickly outnumber its plusses.
An Honest Liar
In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)