When Richard Turner says he has a “two or three pack-a-day habit,” he’s not talking about cigarettes. A self-described “card mechanic” (because he can fix a card game), Turner is almost never without a deck in his hands — at one point in “Dealt,” Luke Korem’s sweet but listless documentary about the legendary sleight-of-hand trickster, Turner’s wife recounts how she once caught him absently running a card over his fingers while they were having sex. Needless to say, the 63-year-old has put in his 10,000 hours more than 10 times over.
Also: He’s completely blind. And he might not want you to know that. The fact might sound self-evident — he’s a close-up magician! — but Turner never gives anything away. From the moment he saunters on stage at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, everything is part of the act, including the eye contact he appears to make with the intimate crowd. Other people might be inclined to make that a gimmick, but Turner doesn’t end his show by letting viewers in on the secret. On the contrary, he’d rather the world see him as a sighted man. “I don’t like sympathy,” he barks,” and I don’t like the theme ‘handicap makes good.’” He’s not kidding. This is a guy who earned a black belt in karate and wouldn’t share the newspaper story about his big moment because the headline referenced his blindness.
Korem isn’t interested in helping Turner maintain that illusion. In fact, he spoon-feeds the reveal by having a stranger just blurt it out, giving us only a few shots to suss out the truth for ourselves. Not only does the gambit deprive us the pleasure of fully appreciating what Turner has taught himself to do, it also deprives Turner the privilege of “coming out” on his own terms. In what is ultimately a movie about a blind man learning to rely on the support of his loved ones, it often feels like “Dealt” is actively pushing its subject toward the ending it wants him to have.
Fortunately, Korem is working with one hell of a subject. Warm, obsessive, idiosyncratic, and — despite his best efforts — a little inspiring, Turner is nothing if not a fantastically interesting human being. The most astounding part of Turner’s tricks is that knowing how he does them only makes them more impressive, the same way that watching a hummingbird flap its wings in slow motion only makes it that much harder to understand how they can do it at imperceptible speeds.
Toward that end, learning about his personal life doesn’t do a thing to lessen the magic. Turner has a lovely wife, who’s stuck with him through thick and thin. He has a son (named “Asa Spades”), who he wants to pursue a different line of work. He also has a very successful sister who suffers from the same handicap — and, in sharp contrast to Richard, has never been shy about asking for help. She uses a guide dog, while Richard just whistles for his wife to come help him, and is too embarrassed to even use a cane. She runs her own construction business, while Richard is left to rely on his routine.
In a film that struggles to find structure, “Dealt” taps into a real sense of purpose when it compares Richard’s approach to his sibling’s, with Korem rather unambiguously throwing his support behind the latter. The end of this story is inevitable from the start, but even that doesn’t entirely rob the film of its drama. Watching Turner learn to accept his weakness is ultimately satisfying, even if this gentle documentary loses a lot of texture with every shuffle.
“Dealt” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.