For real

Bogus is a surprising charmer

Bill Watterston, the cartoonist who created Calvin & Hobbes, was so devoted to the concept of his strip--that a little boy's toy tiger might actually come to life, but only he could see it--that he refused to merchandise the characters. It was as if making Hobbes a real stuffed animal would rob him of his enigmatic playfulness. Such dedication to a philosophy, aside from its fiscal bravery, suggests that Watterston understands that the fantasy world of a small child is one of the mysteries of life in itself: After all, just how does the imagination work? Perhaps the greatest wonder emerging from the innocence of youth lies in discovering what secrets the mind unlocks for us, just by opening ourselves to the possibility of a kingdom far more beautiful in its infinite variety than anything man has yet produced on earth.

Having myself had an unusually fertile fantasy life as a kid, I am a self-confessed sucker for any good rendition of the images that swirl around in childhood. The last two movies that really captured the ineffable quality of preadolescence--mostly by evoking that age through feelings rather than events--could not have been more dissimilar: Tall Tale, a live-action Disney film that flopped at the box office last year; and this summer's Welcome to the Dollhouse, a grimly accurate junior-high reminiscence that spits its vitriol like some perversely comic suburban horror story. The hat trick for a good movie is to emphasize the "big" moments in all their abstract glory, yet resist the mere cliches of childhood that never add anything to discussions about the nature of growing up. Lately, however, such cliches have carried the day (Flipper, Alaska, Jack).

You might think, based on its cheesy trailer, that Bogus, the unfortunately titled new comedy with Whoopi Goldberg and Gerard Depardieu, falls into the suspect category of ho-hum kid flicks. That's why it's pleasantly surprising to discover that it's an unexpected little charmer, refreshingly mature and heartfelt with only occasional forays into uncontrollable sappiness.

Bogus begins predictably enough. An adorable 7-year-old boy named Albert (Haley Joel Osment) becomes withdrawn and isolated when his mother, a Las Vegas show girl, dies in a car accident. He is sent away from Sin City to live in Newark with the godmother he has never met, Harriet (Goldberg). Although New Jersey is the "Garden State," Albert's view of Newark isn't exactly the glitz and spangle of Vegas. Cops seem to do nothing but write traffic tickets, no one smiles at anyone else, and you have to use a fake fire hydrant to get a parking space near your building. Small wonder he invents an invisible playmate, a flamboyant Frenchman named "Bogus" (played by Depardieu).

If the movie began and ended there, the plot would surely not be enough to sustain it. In fact, like similar-themed films (Cloak and Dagger springs to mind), the story progresses in tidy, too-convenient vignettes that lack a truly creative spark: Albert runs away from home to join the circus (well, an itinerant magic act); Harriet worries about his inability to make friends; Albert's thoughtless whims interfere with Harriet's business prospects. These roads are well traveled. What sets Bogus apart is the stylish way that the director, Norman Jewison, and the screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, approach the material. They ably take the stalest of scenes and, by tweaking them with catchy lines and smart, sly details, elevate the film above its commonplace roots.

Such skill is something we have come to expect from Jewison. With In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, ...And Justice for All, and others, he was one of the busiest, most sought-after directors during the '60s and '70s. But since the mid-'80s his output has dwindled--only three films in more than 10 years. Jewison has never been an auteur; he seems comfortable in many genres, and there's nothing particularly recognizable about his visual style. Yet he's tremendously gifted in the way he wrings perfectly pitched performances from every member of his cast. Bogus is no exception; there's evidence of a craftsman's attention to detail in almost every scene. As in Moonstruck, Jewison's best ensemble piece, none of the characters seems extraneous to the story, and all are sharply drawn. Albert's real-world hero (a French magician named Antoine), his baby-sitter, Harriet's secretary--even a flight attendant and smartass airport worker--are all identifiably human. You sense a lifetime of experience behind every one, even as the screenplay wisely relegates them to appearing only as is necessary to advance the plot.

As good as the bit players are, the best moments come from Bogus and his diminutive alter ego, Albert. If Haley Joel Osment didn't exist when this script was written, then the filmmakers would have had to invent him to make the film work as smoothly as it does. Osment has the unaffected ease of the best child actors. Never cloying or self-conscious, he's full of energy from the delights of his own imagination. Osment is forced to act out many of his scenes twice: once with Depardieu present, and once carrying the scene by himself while pretending to be talking to someone. He pulls them off with an expertise that belies his moppet exterior.

Depardieu is equally winning. I know women who refuse to see his movies because he has admitted to the crimes of his own misspent youth, including rape. It would be a shame to let his past shade what is one of his most open and likeable performances to date. Because he is Albert's own imagination, his conscience, Bogus has many self-imposed limitations that the film adheres to rather admirably. When Harriet tricks Albert by pretending to see Bogus--miming his departure--Osment and Depardieu express the same relief and bewilderment upon his eventual return, and remind themselves never to be fooled again by Harriet. It's an enchanting little scene made even more amusing by Depardieu's frisky mischievousness. He seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and the fun is infectious.

Although Goldberg gives a capable performance, Harriet tends toward stereotype more than any other major character. She admits to having no maternal instincts, and although she tried to make life pleasant for Albert--she buys fish sticks, Mickey Mouse soap, and Big Bird bubble bath--she has nothing more than a surface familiarity with what it takes to nurture a child. She lacks the human connection: hugs, praise, and affection. We can't understand her reluctance to embrace Albert, and while that hesitance eventually gets addressed, it never rings completely true.

Bogus takes a few misguided stabs at being intentionally magical, and on the whole these are the weakest parts of the movie; near the end, sentiment gushes like a burst artery. One of the two big dream sequences in particular grinds the film to a halt, and Bogus could have done without the clip from Harvey, as well; that's always a risky venture--paying tribute to better, similar movies. Still, you can't fault Jewison for wearing his heart on his sleeve any more than you can complain about how the enormous moon dominated the night scenes in Moonstruck.

For me, there are only a few real, unabashedly effective tear-jerkers, the kind that touch you because you really care for the characters, and because the actors' emotions seem sincere: Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, Kirk's eulogy for Spock in Star Trek II, the closing scene from Schindler's List. Bogus stands at the heels of these giants, but it passes the hardest test yet devised for recommending this sort of movie: I look at the couple sitting in front of me to see if the man openly cries at least once, yet by the end still seems to enjoy the movie. Works every time.

Bogus. Warner Bros./Regency. Whoopi Goldberg, Gerard Depardieu, Haley Joel Osment. Written by Alvin Sargent. Directed by Norman Jewison. Now showing.

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