Why do movies consistently do wrong by childhood? Kids on the screen tend to be contrivances rather than children: sentimental, pleasing, and fraudulent. On one side are the descendants of The Goodbye Girl, with small fry who mouth comically adult dialogue and make cute for the reaction shot; on the other are treacly coming-of-age dramas that ape To Kill a Mockingbird with diminishing returns. To rephrase that Chuck E. Cheese ad, where can a kid go to see a kid?
To Europe, I suppose, where movies from Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games to Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog have expertly described the quotidian terrors and joys of preadolescence. Or to the American independents: Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill isn’t just one of the best recent movies about children, it’s one of the best recent movies, period. But for filmmakers working in the Hollywood bubble, the subject brings out a big-budget whimsy that can be ghastly to behold. What got into Rob Reiner’s head to make North? Who told Richard Donner that Radio Flyer was a good idea? And what prompted The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola to direct Jack, or Norman Jewison, who gave us Moonstruck, to helm Bogus?
The answer, in Jack’s case, is a big one: Big the 1988 movie, big the money that film made, big the career boost it gave star Tom Hanks and director Penny Marshall. Arguably, Coppola is shooting for similar glory with this like-minded tale of a boy trapped in a man’s body. This time, though, the setup is rigged for maximum pathos: Jack Powell (Robin Williams) is afflicted with a rare physical disorder that causes him to age at four times the normal rate. At 10, he’s pushing six feet and fighting against middle-age spread.
Jack is about what happens when this gentle giant joins his fellow kids in fifth grade — only these kids bear a tenuous relationship to actual youngsters. For one thing, they’re more T&A obsessed than any 10-year-olds I know, slavering over copies of Penthouse and dreaming of dates with their babelicious teacher (Jennifer Lopez). Somehow, in the movie’s bizarre worldview, such horndog behavior represents childhood’s essential innocence. Or, as Jack’s pal (Adam Zolotin) says, defending him in a school essay, ”He’s like the perfect grown-up, because on the inside he’s still just a kid.”
That’s mighty potent naivete, and it might even work if Coppola didn’t garnish everything with directorial froufrou, like bubbles flying through a scene, or a never-never suburbia setting where tree houses appear to come straight from The Sharper Image. And it might work if Williams were intent on playing an actual child instead of an Inner Child. This actor is a quicksilver genius, but his worst impulse — his yen for spongy, throttled sensitivity — gets free rein here. Depressingly, there’s an audience for this stuff: Jack made $60 million in theaters. On video, it’s like a Hallmark card mourning an innocence that never existed.
At least Bogus, a box office bomb ($4 million), gives us a recognizable kid, played by an actual child. And it gets a genuine kid’s-eye view across before going seriously berserk in the last 15 minutes. Albert (Haley Joel Osment) is a 7-year-old boy sent to live with his dead mom’s childhood friend, a tight-lipped Newark businesswoman played, with admirable lack of twinkle, by Whoopi Goldberg. Albert brings along an imaginary friend, a massive French pixie named Bogus and played, with admirable twinkle, by Gerard Depardieu. Sounds like bad-movie hell, non? No, because the adult actors play fair and because Osment registers a confidence in matters small and a bafflement in matters large that are believable. Albert isn’t an innocent; he’s just doing his best to make sense of an adult world that keeps throwing him curves.
Of course, Goldberg’s character says she never clapped for Tinkerbell, so it’s only a matter of time before she sees Bogus and rediscovers her Inner Child. At this point, Bogus drives right off the road, veering off into a deluxe Astaire-and-Rogers dance routine between Goldberg and Depardieu, two actors who appear to have one left foot between them. To Jewison’s credit, he doesn’t seem to buy it either; the movie quickly, absurdly patches up the relationship between kid and godmother, then lets the credits roll. For a while, though, Bogus is the rare mainstream movie about children that isn’t kidding itself.