Film Reviews

Hard to Believe

In synopsis, Bogus sounds like something too precious for words and too cute by half. A seven-year-old boy, devastated by the loss of his mother, invents an imaginary playmate. Said playmate provides emotional support as the boy makes a difficult transition from his old life in Las Vegas, where his mom worked in a magic revue, to a new world in Newark, New Jersey, where he is sent to live with his mother's childhood friend. Unfortunately, the friend, a workaholic who operates a less-than-successful restaurant-supply company, is seriously deficient in parenting skills. Even more unfortunately, the friend is a resolutely practical sort who refuses to believe in, or put up with, imaginary playmates.

Not too promising, right?
And yet, somehow, the people involved with the making of this deeply affecting and profoundly funny fantasy have, individually and collectively, transcended themselves. At first blush, Bogus might seem too calculated in its plotting -- and, yes, too top-heavy in its big-name casting -- to achieve much in the way of a genuine emotional impact. But the movie turns out to be something considerably more than the sum of its disparate parts. Under the smoothly self-assured direction of veteran filmmaker Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night), Bogus manages the difficult feat of being rigorously logical, intelligently sentimental and captivatingly magical all at once.

The casting is inspired. Newcomer Haley Joel Osment is so appealing and unaffected as Albert, the seven-year-old boy who dreams up Bogus, that he is able to carry much of the film on his own small shoulders. During the early scenes that provide a quick-sketch view of Albert's life in Las Vegas, Osment easily develops a credible rapport with Nancy Travis, his on-screen mother, and the various members of the magic revue. As a result, the audience is better able to share the pain that Albert experiences during the traumatic disruption of this seemingly idyllic existence.

As Harriet, the friend who suddenly finds herself in the role of foster mother, Whoopi Goldberg is more restrained than usual, more intent on giving a fully thought-out performance instead of a casually tossed-off star turn. Under the right circumstances, Goldberg can be a very engaging and richly amusing screen presence. Under even better circumstances, however, she can vividly portray a complex human being. In Bogus, Goldberg often is extremely funny. But the humor stems from her character's frustrations as a business owner and a foster parent. Usually, Goldberg comes across as lovably feisty. Here, however, she is not afraid to be snappishly cranky. When it's finally revealed that Harriet has good reason not to believe in magic, the revelation has dramatic weight because Goldberg plays Harriet as a character of substance, not a source of comic relief.

The most audacious thing Jewison has done in Bogus is cast Gerard Depardieu in the title role. Depardieu is an extraordinarily appealing actor whose bountiful appetite for life -- and, obviously, for many other things as well -- makes him a wonderfully apt choice to play a larger-than-life character. When he first appears as Bogus, springing to life from a child's drawing, he appears ready to burst through the screen itself. That he does this springing within the tight confines of an airliner's lavatory only serves to emphasize his enormity. (Which is altogether appropriate, considering that, in this scene, he is being viewed for the first time by the child who has invented him.) Depardieu often seems less an actor than a force of nature. His stature, in every sense of the word, can sometimes unbalance a movie. But thanks to Jewison's skill as a director, and Depardieu's subtlety as an actor, the French superstar is no bigger than he absolutely has to be in Bogus.

A nice touch: Jewison and screenwriter Alvin Sargent "explain" Bogus' nationality by showing that Albert's best friend in Las Vegas was a French magician (played by French Canadian actor Denis Mercier) who taught the little boy a few things about sleight of hand.

Another nice touch: unlike so many recent aggressively colorblind movies, "Bogus" at least acknowledges the fact that, hey, it might be a little awkward at first for a black woman to raise a white child as her own. Nobody makes a big deal about this, and the issue is dropped almost as soon as it is raised. But the fact that it is raised at all is an indication of how fair Jewison plays with the audience.

Here and elsewhere, it is obvious that a lot of thought has gone into even the minor details of Bogus. The movie is a fantasy, to be sure, but it is grounded in just enough realistic detail to facilitate a willing suspension of disbelief. And because it is so respectful and sympathetic in the depiction of its central characters, we cannot help but care for these folks as much as Jewison does.

In fact, we come to care so much that, by the time Bogus takes a few insistent yanks on the heartstrings, we are primed to shed some tears without any feelings of embarrassment. And when Goldberg and Depardieu cut loose in a surprisingly graceful dance number, the scene is grandly satisfying because, by that point in the film -- well, damn it, we want these two characters to get together. Even here, however, Jewison and Sargent are careful not to get so carried away that they leave common sense too far behind. There actually are sound reasons, dramatic and psychological, for Harriet's sudden ability to sense Bogus' presence. By being so attentive to such real-world concerns, Bogus makes it all the easier for the audience to believe in magic.

Directed by Norman Jewison. With Gerard Depardieu, Whoopi Goldberg and Haley Joel Osment.

Rated PG.
112 minutes.

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Joe Leydon