“Based on a true story” is where the real world and the cinematic world collide. Whether it be a romantic comedy, a micro-budget horror movie, or a courtroom drama, a film with that label carries weight vicariously, intriguing viewers with the promise that the story, or something like it, actually occurred and in fact could have happened to them.
Both The Chameleon and Changeling explore cases of unexpected reappearances of missing children and the dark secrets surrounding their returns. However, the two films take different approaches in point of view. In The Chameleon, the story is about a professional liar assuming a missing teenage boy’s identity, while Changeling focuses on a mother who, after her nine-year-old son is kidnapped, must deal with the trauma when police return the wrong child and insist he’s her son.
These stories involve what Hollywood sometimes calls “difficult subject matter,” which may be why Changeling, despite an A-List pedigree and considerable critical success, performed only modestly at the box office. The fact that it was based on a true story may have helped in some ways and hurt in others. Now viewers have the chance to experience two nightmarish family dramas, their attention heightened by the knowledge that both films hew more or less closely to true events. For those who can only take so much family angst, clearly a Smackdown is in order. Accept no substitutes.
The Chameleon follows Frederic Bourdin (Marc-André Grondin), a young man from France who assumes the identity of Nicholas Mark Randall, a child from Louisiana who had been missing for three years and was presumed dead. After hearing of Nicky’s reunion with his family, FBI agent Jennifer Johnson (Famke Janssen) suspects something fishy. The kid seems older than the missing boy would be… different… not to mention that French accent. Johnson starts investigating, even though the Randall family, who had some doubts at first, has accepted Bourdin as their own.
The story examines the emotional makeup of this bizarre young con man and the fractured family’s self-delusion when he shows up to prey on their misfortune. Ellen Barkin, who sizzled onscreen in Sea of Love, here plays Nicky’s broken mother as disturbed almost to the point of psychosis. Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) brings some menace to the story as the boy’s half-brother, and Emilie de Ravin (from TV’s Lost) seems the most vested in accepting the imposter’s charade.
The Chameleon was co-written and directed by French filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé, with script and story help from Natalie Carter and Christophe D’Antonio. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 and was released to selected theaters and video-on-demand July 8. It expands to more theaters July 15.
The Defending Champion
Set in 1928 Los Angeles, Changeling follows Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a woman supposedly reunited with her son, Walter, who has been missing for months, but who then discovers the boy is actually not her son. When she confronts the LAPD about the mix-up, Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan from TV’s Burn Notice) accuses her of passing off her responsibilities as a mother and admits her to a mental institution.
Elsewhere, other LAPD detectives uncover a string of gruesome murders of young boys. When Walter is named as a possible victim, the Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) helps Christine get out of the institution and find out what really happened.
Clint Eastwood directed the film from a script by J. Michael Straczynski, who burst onto Hollywood’s A-List with this spec. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Jolie, as the tortured and vilified mom. Straczynski reportedly felt the film narrowly lost the Palme d’Or at Cannes because voters didn’t believe some of the story’s outrageous details were true. This led Universal to ask him to annotate the script with historical sources, which he did.
Part of the fascination of watching films based on real events is trying to figure out how much is true and what dramatic liberties were taken. With forensic technology relatively lacking in the ’20s when Changeling was set, it was more difficult to provide hardcore evidence to back up Christine’s claim that the LAPD gave her the wrong kid. Lucky for her, events fell into place to bolster her case and make the LAPD look really foolish.
The Chameleon, which takes place in modern times, seems harder to accept. Bourdin gives a pretty convincing story when he turns himself in to authorities in France and claims he’s Nick Randall, but why didn’t the cops do a better job checking out his story? In this day and age, it’s not hard to get a DNA test to confirm one’s identity — something eventually done in the movie. The press notes go to some length establishing the real Bourdin as a serial con man with at least 39 different identities, citing his official biography from 2007. But unlike, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, whose cleverness we constantly witness as he misleads everyone in sight, Bourdin’s success eluding capture seems to depend less on his own guile than on the gullibility or disinterest of his marks. This makes for a less interesting story.
Both directors did a good job setting the tone of their films. Eastwood’s work to create the time period of Changeling through its costumes, sets, and even computer effect made everything genuine and believable. Director Salomé, who didn’t have to deal with too much in terms of fitting the period, nonetheless succeeded in setting an ominous feel, even during the film’s more light-hearted moments. The Chameleon just felt creepy, almost foreshadowing the impending mess that was to be unraveled as the movie progressed.
The Chameleon gets high marks for its examination of a group of fringe characters struggling to deal with devastating events, yet despite its attempt to deliver closure, it feels as if there’s more story to be told there. Both films were captivating at times, but Changeling was by far the more satisfying work. Richly shot and produced, it features some of Hollywood’s most established talent joining forces to produce a film with an indie sensibility. This one will endure.