Hollywood Con Queen review – a truly boring journey through an astonishing scam | Television & radio

Hollywood finds no subject more fascinating than Hollywood. It has dwelled on itself virtually from the moment the film industry began. The good stuff endures – from Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain onwards – but there is a lot of bloated dross out there.

To the second pile we must add the three hours of Hollywood Con Queen – a tale of a scam that could be told in 60 minutes, rather than the 180 allocated. A large scam, to be sure, involving the impersonation of a lot of studio heads, but a scam nonetheless, operating along the same principles as any other to which we have borne witness in life or as viewers of true-crime shows.

For 10 years or more, according to this documentary, Hargobind Tahilramani targeted freelance actors, makeup artists, photographers and others in the entertainment industry by impersonating powerful women. These included Amy Pascal, then the co-chair of Sony Pictures, the art collector and entrepreneur Wendi Deng Murdoch and Sherry Lansing, then Paramount’s CEO. He convinced his victims to hand over thousands of dollars for acting and gym classes, or to fork out for expenses that were never reimbursed for speculative trips (usually to Tahilramani’s native Indonesia) for nonexistent projects.

The first hour is dedicated to victims’ testimony. All say theywere defrauded of money and suffered intrusion and psychological manipulation (“Amy Pascal”, or one of the women’s supposed assistants, would call at all hours with further instructions and requirements). In some cases, they also experienced sexual harassment, being inveigled into phone sex – at which point most realised that something was awry and extricated themselves from the scam. Those with whom Tahilramani did not go so far tended to lose more money, but emerged less psychologically scarred.

Hargobind Tahilramani in Hollywood Con Queen. Photograph: Apple

Their experiences are described in minute detail – it feels as if every phone call, blocked number and shiver of apprehension is noted – which does their suffering a disservice, as it numbs us with boredom. I presume it was done, if not for straightforward padding purposes, because those featured represent only a tiny proportion of the 500-plus people Tahilramani is estimated to have exploited, or to avoid accusations of prurience by giving unequal weight to the sex stuff. But throwing everything at us doesn’t work, either.

The series is based on the journalist Scott Johnson’s book The Con Queen of Hollywood: The Hunt for an Evil Genius, which grew out of his articles on the scammer who would eventually be revealed as Tahilramani, sitting in the middle of a complex web of interactions that reached – can you believe it! – beyond California.

Johnson takes us through his research, but the film-makers’ efforts to convince us that the private investigator Nicole Kotisianas is not the star of the story do not come off. She spent three years obsessively tracking the Instagram account of Tahilramani (then living in the UK and trying to establish himself as an influencer), even after she has gathered enough evidence to convince the FBI that it needed to take over (and, from the sounds of it, having doled out hefty doses of therapy to many of Tahilramani’s victims).

The second hour details the investigations, but spins its wheels a bit to save all the big stuff for the final hour. This comprises Johnson’s telephone and video-call interviews with Tahilramani; a reported account from his sister about her brother’s volatility since childhood and his lifetime of criminality, undiverted by time in jail and in mental institutions; and his eventual arrest for the Hollywood impersonation frauds.

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It’s a more interesting hour, but still feels bloated and self-indulgent. We see so much footage of Tahilramani – self-pitying, self-justifying, narcissistic, making claims of bipolar disorder and a troubled background – that it is easy to draw our own conclusions about him that do not differ much, I suspect, from Johnson’s. He offers no more insight than that Tahilramani has a sadistic streak and was in it as much for the thrill as the money – otherwise, the scam was too elaborate to be worth it.

Tahilramani is currently in the UK fighting extradition to the US, where he faces a number of charges.

The series feels like a very long journey by the team behind Fyre and Tiger King, from whom you would expect better, to a close and familiar place.

Hollywood Con Queen is on Apple TV+ now

This article was amended on 8 May 2024 to correct some misspellings of Hargobind Tahilramani’s surname.