Sweetly sentimental and anachronistically whimsical, “Bogus” is a modern metaphor oddly out of step with contemporary taste. The tale about an inward child who invents a secret friend strives to make its points about alienation and vulnerability in a fantastic manner, but it’s a simple tale unbalanced by big names and sumptuous production values. Heartfelt, sincere and well intentioned, the picture falls short of achieving emotional connection and looks destined for so-so box office response.
Precocious 7-year-old Albert (Haley Joel Osment) is a budding sleight-of-hand artist. He comes by this honestly: His mother, Lorraine (Nancy Travis), works in a Las Vegas magic revue. But this cozy world of illusion goes seriously akilter when a driver plows through an intersection and fatally broadsides Mom.
The theatrical gypsies don’t quite know what to do with the lad. But they’re let off the hook, as Lorraine’s will instructs that her foster sister be contacted in the event of her untimely demise. Harriet (Whoopi Goldberg) is hardly the picture of surrogate mom of the year. The operator of a struggling restaurant-supply company in distant Newark, she is energetic but unfocused, and the last thing on her mind is parental responsibility.
Even though Harriet and Lorraine have had no contact in at least a decade, the bond they forged as children is paramount, and Albert is shipped cross-country. En route, he has a panic attack and scurries into the airplane bathroom with his coloring book. He emerges with an unexpected ally in the form of the caricature he’s scribbled, a Frenchman who says his name is Bogus (Gerard Depardieu).
There is an unquestionable preciousness and fragility to Alvin Sargent’s script, which all involved attempt to surmount. Bogus isn’t quite “Harvey,” though he shares his invisibility, and he lacks the earthly background of Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.” No, he’s more in keeping with Clarence, the angel who showed George Bailey that his very existence has meant something in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
While the imaginary friend is the device the boy employs to cope with a world turned upside down, he also serves as a means of connecting Albert and Harriet. It’s only when the latter confronts her past that her eyes widen to take in the image of the impish man from the other side.
The pop psychology is a bit too on-the-nose. While pic embraces a master film craftsman’s sheen and rhythm, there’s a neatness to “Bogus” that serves as a dramatic safety net, robbing the film of precisely the sort of edge it needed to be compelling.
As a result, the picture’s joys are evanescent. It’s stunningly shot by David Watkin particularly in its fantastical circus illusions and handsomely mounted, as one would expect from old pros like Norman Jewison and production designer Ken Adam.
And then there’s Depardieu, a force of nature so seemingly inappropriate for the role, and yet unquestionably perfect in his abandonment of logic. He operates brilliantly on an emotional level.
One can understand Goldberg’s long-standing desire to team with the actor, but this proves an unsuitable vehicle. When they finally make contact, they segue into an inelegantly choreographed dance routine that stretches even this film’s boundaries of credibility. Osment is fine in a fairly standard kid’s role.
The film is, like its stars, big, boisterous and in your face. It sorely required a moment of reflective meditation.