An Honest Liar documents James Randi’s early life as a carnival-bound refugee from Toronto who, early on, dedicated himself to learning every trick performed by Harry Houdini, and even improving on some of them. In one of his feats as an escape artist, Randi frees himself from a straitjacket while being hung upside down by his ankles over Niagara Falls.
Age and concerns over the danger of his profession and his health lead him to retire from that occupation and seek out not only a new career, but a crusading obsession that makes him a pop cultural fixture by the 1970s: As a scientific skeptic investigator and challenger to pseudoscientific and paranormal claims, which leads him to expose the deceit behind religious faith healers, psychics, and other con artists who exploit the public. Randi becomes a recurring guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and makes appearances on TV shows such as Happy Days and in rock music artist Alice Cooper’s 1973 Billion Dollar Babies tour, where Randi decapitates Cooper at the end of each performance.
The film spotlights some of the more notable targets investigated and debunked by Randi. One is mentalist Uri Geller, who performed psychic feats on the talk show circuit, such as bending a spoon with minimal contact, and guessing the contents of sealed envelopes and other objects. Randi worked closely with the staff of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson prior to a 1973 appearance on that program by Geller, who publicly claimed at the time that his acts were performed with genuine psychic ability, and not magic tricks. Randi had The Tonight Show staff observe strict controls over the materials that Geller would work with during his appearance to prevent any trickery or cheating by Geller. As a result, Geller was unable to perform any of the feats that he regularly performed on other TV shows. Another target is faith healer Peter Popoff, who during his church revival meetings, demonstrated personal knowledge of people in the audience, such as their names, addresses and illnesses, which he stated was due to the work of God. Randi discovered that the true source of this information was a radio in Popoff’s ear with which he was fed information by his wife. Another venture on which Randi embarked had him perpetrating a hoax on the Australian public in which a young man claimed on Australian television to channel the spirit of an ancient seer. The man was in reality Randi’s partner, performance artist José Alvarez. In another, Randi had two confederates, mentalist Steve Shaw and actor Michael Edwards, pose as mentalists in a Washington University in St. Louis study that confirmed Geller as an actual psychic.
The film also details Randi’s longtime relationship with Alvarez, his decision to publicly come out at age 81, and how Alvarez, at the time of filming, had recently been discovered to be living under a false identity, which leads to legal ramifications for the couple.