THE IMPOSTER In which yellow hair and mysterious ulterior motives allow a con man to pass as a family's lost son.
For lots of people, discussion of The Imposter—the 2012 documentary about a French con man who passes himself off as a Texas family's missing teenage son—need go no further than "OH MY GOD CAN YOU FUCKING BELIEVE IT?"
It's an amazing story, featuring not only a French con man who passes himself off as a Texas family's missing teenage son, but a Texas family that instantly accepts this brown-eyed, French-accented stranger as their blue-eyed, Texas-born son. (The family members' dances around the discrepancies are well-documented, with their collective misgivings about the new arrival's foreign air and "funny accent" outweighed by hunger for a lost son's return and wishful fixation on "how much his nose looks like Uncle Pat's.") Eventually, things get twistier than you can possibly imagine, forcing viewers to remind themselves, "This is a true story," making the basic unfolding of the story's facts riveting.
Unfortunately, for me, The Imposter presents this amazing story with a bunch of cheap cinema tricks I found off-putting, then repellant, then almost ruinous. Chief among these is the film's unabashed glamorization of its subject, con man Frederic Bourdain, who's given endless time to gaze meaningfully or diabolically or abashedly into the camera. Worse, director Bart Layton uses quick-cuts back to Bourdain's portentous muggings throughout the film, to "illuminate" moments that are already perfectly clear. By the time we get to Layton directing Bourdin in reenactments of his own life (complete with overlapped-and-lipsynched dialogue), the strenuous machinations may have wounded your ability to trust the tellers of this amazing true story.
But back to The Imposter, which features tons of things to enjoy beyond cheap tricks, including:
* The beguiling characters that make up the Texas family, which are spared the portentously dramatic filming techniques and allowed to just be themselves. * A fascinating suggestion of a murder plot/alternate theory of the family's son's disappearance * High drama involving a fax machine * Songs by the Doobie Brothers, Cat Stevens, and David Bowie * The thrills supplied by the basic timeline of the story—which characters know what when, and how this knowledge affects (or doesn't affect) their behavior. (I also really liked the insight we got into the step-by-step nature of Bourdain's plot to join the family, how he acquired information about the kid he was impersonating, etc.)
But really, everything that's good about the movie is even better in the New Yorker essay, which also sheds great light on Bourdain's background and motives, and the evergreen difficulty in prosecuting him (no statutes exactly outlaw what he's doing). Watch the movie, read the essay, gab about both in the comments.