Chameleon, The: French Film Noir

By Jeff Farr

“The Chameleon” is a tepid, misguided attempt at Southern noir from a French director, Jean-Paul Salome, making his first film in English.

Although the story eventually delves into some compelling psychological aspects of its characters, viewers will have to dodge many bullets—in the form of bad acting, direction, and writing—to make it that far.

The movie gets off to a jumpy start—switching around among events in 2006, 2000, and 1996—which adds up to pointless disorientation. The basic point: A Louisiana teenager (Marc-Andre Grondin) missing for four years has suddenly resurfaced (with a new French accent) and is headed home to his highly dysfunctional, Southern-fried family.

The case soon arouses the suspicions of an FBI agent (Famke Janssen) who wonders if the teenager is a pretender and what this family might be up to, what this family might possibly be hiding.

The movie repeatedly hints that something big and terrible happened long ago and that the shocking secret is going to be revealed by movie’s end, just wait. There will be consequences, yada yada yada. In the case of “The Chameleon,” we find ourselves not so eager to ever know that secret. For whatever it is, is there anyone in this family worth caring about?

Much of the film focuses on the sinister dynamics of a strange, protracted family reunion, especially between this eager-to-please young man and his severely damaged mother (Ellen Barkin). At first, she does not seem particularly happy that her son has at last returned. In fact, she often seems too disgusted to look him in the eye.

This is probably the wackiest movie mom of 2011 to date. Barkin’s performance is from start to finish overwrought, overcooked, and over the top, yet fascinating to watch in terms of “What could they possibly have been thinking?”

The fault clearly lies with Salome’s direction. He is shooting himself in the foot by not giving Barkin or any of the other competent actors what they need to make this picture work.

Barkin has proven herself to be a solid actor in a distinguished career that is now nearing the thirty-year mark and includes highlights like “Diner” (1982), “Sea of Love” (1989), and “This Boy’s Life” (1993). Although she has not had any knockout roles in recent years, she deserves one. This role is hardly it.

Just when we are wondering how far Barkin’s overacting is going to spin out of control, Salome throws in an unforgettably unfortunate, unintentionally comic scene of her shooting up in her foot. His intent is not camp: we are supposed to take this troubled mom as tragic, not as a joke.

The other actors in “The Chameleon” generally fare better but still not so well. Janssen in the other lead female role is overly stiff, when she could have added some much needed warmth to the frosty proceedings.

The screenplay, by Salome and Natalie Carter, is unbelievable and stuffed with predictable, TV drama lines. As ridiculous scene after ridiculous scene pile up, it becomes harder and harder to buy that “The Chameleon” is based on a true story, despite the film’s claims.

This film feels awkward and forced. It is a movie set in Louisiana that never feels like a Louisiana film, a film about the South that never feels Southern.

One of Salome’s main aims is to capture that white trash magic on film. But the redneck family at the center of this movie never convinces as white trash nor even as a family unit. The family just never comes alive, mostly killing the movie.

“The Chameleon” does redeem itself somewhat in its final act, as Salome teases out the characters’ deeper motivations for doing what they have done. The young impostor turns out to have more levels than he seemed to at first, a companion to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (2002).

Cast

Nicholas Marc Randall – Marc-Andre Grondin

Jennifer Johnson – Famke Janssen

Kimberly Miller – Ellen Barkin

Credits

A Lleju Productions release.

Directed by Jean-Paul Salome.

Written by Jean-Paul Salome and Natalie Carter.

Produced by Cooper Richey, Bill Perkins, Ram Bergman, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, and Pierre Kubel.

Cinematography, Pascal Ridao.

Editing, Marie-Pierre Renaud.

Original Music, Jeff Cardoni.

Running time: 93 minutes.