Reel Fakes

Impossible imposters, fabulous fabulists and phantastic phonies.

Martina Marosi

In the dark of a movie theater, everyone is a stranger. For a few suspended moments, only the mouth breathers, popcorn eaters and furtive texters disappear into the background for a brief escape into the foreign world of a feature film. Diehard fans at a long-awaited midnight premiere might show up in costume in hopes of letting themselves melt into a mystical realm, but such costumed revelers are simply sleepy stowaways on a dreamboat yet to disembark.

Sometimes, cinematic narratives set their sights on analyzing the deception required to fulfill escapist fantasies, elements intrinsic to the act of movie-watching. It might take the form of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s literal and figurative escapism in “Catch Me If You Can,” awash in elaborate, globe-trotting cons. It might involve being emotionally ensnared and duped by enigmatically manipulative impersonators, as with the true story that forms the basis of writer Armistead Maupin’s deeply involved telephone conversations with a, as it turns out, nonexistent teenage boy suffering from AIDS in “The Night Listener,” or even a twist on something similar in the 2010 quasi-documentary “Catfish.” But the metaphorical engagement with a hand-crafted identity might not go far enough. Perhaps it’s about “Being John Malkovich,” a fictional story based on a real actor into whose mind is a physical space others can escape to and, as soon becomes the case, one desperate individual can’t but allow himself to actually live inside the body of the man he’s impersonating. Maybe it’s just Robin Williams in dowdy British nanny drag in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

But alongside the self-control it takes to play the stranger is the equally distinct anxiety of being recognized. It’s no mystery, then, that the imposters who call themselves actors are themselves too enchanted with the art of pretend.

 

“The Imposter”

2012

Directed by Bart Layton

Starring Adam O’Brian, Frédéric Bourdin and Carey Gibson

 

Making use of dramatic re-enactments, archival footage and interviews, this documentary tells the tale of the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Gibson and his apparent resurfacing in Spain three years later. Far from elated, the Gibson family hesitantly embraces Nicholas. Rightfully so, as the Nicholas in their midst was in fact the 23-year-old wildly successful French imposter Frédéric Bourdin who saw Nicholas’ photo in a police database and pursued the Gibson family for love and affection in the guise of their missing relative. In addition to laying out the facts of this bizarre case study, the documentary both explores and prods this reluctance to celebrate Nicholas’s return. It turns out that the speculative answers start with questions about how and why the young Nicholas disappeared in the first place.

 

“Gattaca”

1997

Directed by Andrew Niccol

Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law

 

In a society where eugenics and genetically designed newborns is not only morally permissible but encouraged, natural-born Ethan Hawke is the genetically imperfect “Vincent Freeman,” whose undesigned pedigree leaves him sweeping up after strapping members of the genetically elite known as “valids.” After meeting genetically engineered but now-paralyzed Jerome Morrow (Law), the two co-conspire and execute a thoroughly complex scheme involving a steady supply of Morrow’s blood, urine and tissue samples to gain Vincent cloaked passage into a strange, valid world and to the greater, more exotic possibilities on offer for members of the allele elite. In “Gattaca,” the invisible invalid disappears through someone else’s skin, masquerading as someone he’s not but very well could be.

 

“Bean”

1997

Directed by Mel Smith

Starring Rowan Atkinson

When the near-silent Mr. Bean accidentally destroys the iconic painting “Whistler’s Mother,” it’s time to find a second version, or at least make a darn-good copy. Fortunately, there are a few just laying around the gift shop. The drama of this British comedy plays out primarily across Bean’s agonizing eye-flares and discerning frowns as he plots out how to fool the experts before the work’s unveiling on national television the following day. What’s artistic fraud but a different type of forging?

 

“Battling Butler”

1926

Directed by Buster Keaton

Starring Buster Keaton, Sally O’Neil and Walter James

 

The slight but athletically gifted Buster Keaton plays sensitive weakling Alfred Butler, who gets sent off on a fresh-air hunting and fishing trip by dear old dad in hopes that the young chap will buck up and trudge through the rite of passage with a bit of gusto. Instead falling in love with a fair-hearted maiden of the mountains, Keaton must prove himself as chock full of machismo to his strapping and barrel-chested brothers and father by carrying on the charade that he’s boxing legend “Battling” Butler. It isn’t long before his talk is put to the test and Butler’s talked himself against the ropes and into a corner.