Title: The Chameleon
Director: Jean-Paul Salome
Starring: Marc-Andre Grondin, Ellen Barkin, Famke Janssen, Emilie de Ravin, Nick Stahl, Brian Geraghty, Tory Kittles, Nick Chinlund
Amazing things happen every day, all the world over, but the perils of sticking too closely to chronological fact in the cinematic adaptation of what by most accounts is an interesting true story are amply demonstrated in The Chameleon, an emotionally opaque drama about a wayward European youngster who — with the help of a deeply dysfunctional family, each of whom perhaps has different reasons for wanting to believe — passes himself off as a missing Louisiana teen before finally being outed by federal investigators. A solidly sketched sense of place can’t elevate this torpid tale, which lurches awkwardly to and fro, seemingly most hamstrung by a case of protagonist hot potato.
Nicholas Randall went missing when he was 12 years old. Four years later, his fractured family receives word that he’s been located in France, suffering from localized amnesia but telling a most extraordinary and terrible story, of being kidnapped, raped and tortured for years on end. Sister Kathy (Emilie de Ravin) physically identifies him and brings this young man (Marc-Andre Grondin) home to his small Louisiana hometown. Nicholas’ mother, Kimberly Miller (Ellen Barkin, in a gritty performance), however, barely speaks to him, and his older, ex-junkie brother, Brendan (Nick Stahl), can scarcely seem to contain his violent impulses around him.
While “Nicholas” tries to fit in, FBI agents Jennifer Johnson (Famke Janssen) and Dan Price (Tory Kittles, doing a cut-rate Denzel Washington impression) sense something fishy about this news story, and pump their boss (Nick Chinlund) to let them dig further. When they figure out the young man is indeed an imposter, it sets off a chain reaction of assorted bizarre behavior by the aforementioned family members, raising questions about whether this Frenchman’s crimes and head games are the worst of this messy situation.
Taken from a French journalist’s nonfiction book of the same name, The Chameleon‘s screenplay, by Salome and Natalie Carter, is seemingly hewed to conform to as exact of a chronological replication of events as possible. The problem is that this robs the movie of any sense of audience identification, or a greater momentum. We know definitively by the 30-minute mark that Grondin’s character is not Nicholas, yet we crucially do not get into the imposter’s head, rendering later passages — an abortive cat-and-mouse sequence where he summons Jennifer to a dive bar, seemingly to establish the publicly verifiable impression of her stalking him — lame and impotent.
Repeatedly, The Chameleon‘s plotting works against its better interests. A straight investigatory approach would work fine, yet the full middle third of the movie unfolds after the FBI has established this Nicholas to be a fraud, but also after (in a laughably brief scene) he is taken back in by Kathy, “because he’s still a minor.” (Are minors perpetrating crimes not subject to detention?) Instead of plumbing deeper into the divisions within the family, however, Salome and his charges try to tease along a sense of ambiguity — which means none of the townspeople can say anything about or approach Nicholas, while other characters like Kathy’s husband (Brian Geraghty) are required to act with a thunderously stupid incuriosity, saying things like, “Nicholas, or not Nicholas — I don’t know anymore, and I don’t care!”
The Chameleon earns minor points for not devolving into empty, skulking menace, but then again I gather that was never part of the original story. Unfortunately, the film’s finale — part of which posits that French conman’s profit was “purely emotional” — lacks much in the way of emotional connection, owing to a lead performance that is functional but arm’s-length, but also a script that willfully ignores psychological depth in favor of small narrative pivots and an ensemble portrait that lacks any cathartic punch or payoff.
The film’s strength, undeniably, is its rooted sense of place, and authentic location. Shooting in Baton Rouge, Salome, production designer Martina Buckley and the rest of his crew achieve an engaging sense of grimy, swampland authenticity on a budget that had to be fairly lean. Unfortunately, it’s in the service of a grifter’s tale that’s emotionally crippled, no matter how emotionally motivated its confused central figure supposed to be. Note: In addition to opening in theaters, The Chameleon is currently available on VOD.
Written by: Brent Simon