(Oh, hold on a moment. A bit of personal business to attend to before I start this review.)
(Dear Tom Cruise: Please stop making SF action adventure films. At least until further notice. Hugs. Uncle Mikey.)
Perhaps more than most people, I spend a great deal of time imploring one and all of you to watch good and great films. It falls into the same category as asking you to eat healthy, get plenty of rest and watch uncensored cartoons.
So why (I ask myself) do I occasionally find myself attracted to bad films? Is it the tragic Greek drama flaw which lives in every soul? Will some future Euripides pen a play about how I was perhaps the only person I knew who re-watched “Hudson Hawk”?
Well, as the late Yul Brynner was prone to remark: “Is a puzzlement.”
As an example I offer up Jonathan Demme’s 2002 film “The Truth About Charlie”. Most of the people I know who have seen this film hate it like poison. The rest of the people just hate it regularly. The only time I have seen it make any sort of semi-regular appearance is when it’s broadcast on the sort of cable networks which employ the mentality that the 1998 remake of “Psycho” is somehow superior to Hitchcock’s 1960 film, later versions of “Stagecoach” are better than John Ford’s 1936 effort, Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” is better than Joseph Mankiewicz’s, und so weiter . . .
And I watch this film. Again, and again. Pretty much beats the craven out of me, pumpkins.
It’s not that I don’t know “The Truth About Charlie” (henceforth referred to here as “TTAC”) is a bad film. It is, indeed, very much a bad film. With each viewing I spot more and more flaws, and I’d like to go up to Jonathan Demme’s house, knock on his door and tell him: “You wrote a bad song, Petey”. Then walk away.
But a bad film, even a very bad film, can have at least a few watchable moments. I’ll get to those later, but I’ll provide something of an early summation and say it’s all about Context. For years I’ve been trying to educate Young Son on the value of Context, and failing miserably. I suspect I’ll have to wait until he has kids of his own, then giggle in the background as they become teenagers and roll their eyes at his opinions. But that’s neither here or there.
I may have provided more of an answer to the dilemma a few paragraphs back. The revulsion surrounding “TTAC” is not that it’s just a bad film in itself. It’s because it’s a bad remake of a classic. To wit: Stanley Donen’s excellent 1963 “Charade”. The people who spit on “TTAC” are also usually the ones who strew roses in the path of “Charade” (many of them wearing flowing robes and playing harps. Even the men. Interesting sight, actually). Demme’s mistake isn’t that he made a bad film, but that he made a bad remake of a brilliant film. That’s what’s known as adding insult to injury.
And it’s surprising for Demme. He was one of Roger Corman’s pupils, and his work has generally been of a high calibre (e.g. “Melvin and Howard”, “Swimming to Cambodia”, “The Silence of the Lambs”, “Philadelphia”). And, in terms of remakes, he managed a passable version of “The Manchurian Candidate” (I gave him a B while holding onto the notion that a remake of “Candidate” was wholly unnecessary. But it’s not as if Hollywood is constantly ringing my phone in search of advice or anything). I cannot, for the life of me, understand what drove Demme to try and remake “Charade”. To me (and many others) it was like trying to repaint “La Gioconda”. I mean: Why?
I’m having to presume, by the way, that most (if not all) of you are at least familiar with “Charade”. If not then perhaps you should walk away from this right now, go see the movie, then come back. Trust me on this: “Charade” is a film I wholeheartedly recommend. Directed by Stanley Donen from a screenplay by Peter Stone (and story by Stone and Marc Behm), it stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in as neat a comedic thriller as one could wish for. The revelation of the mystery itself is so much a treat that, even if I presume most of you have seen the film, I won’t risk spilling the beans here. I will, however, supply something of a small synopsis: Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Lambert in the Demme version) is contemplating divorcing her husband Charles. She returns to her home in Paris only to discover that (A) Charles has been killed, (B) Charles has had several identities, (C) Charles was somehow mixed up with the theft of An Awful Lot of Money, (D) The money hasn’t been recovered and (E) A lot of people (most of them very dangerous types) believe Regina has the money. The only person she can turn to for help is a charming stranger whose identity keeps changing at a disturbing pace.
Mentioning Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn leads me to Problem #1 with “TTAC”: Having Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton as the leads. Now Wahlberg as an actor is . . . fair. But, in the first place, he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Demme was hoping for Will Smith. I frankly can’t see where Smith would’ve been all that much better, but that’s my second place: trying to put anyone else in a Cary Grant role is rather like trying to replace Kobe beef with Spam and hoping no one notices the difference. The story required that the male lead be a charming rogue of the first water, and Grant was the sort of man who could attract women to him even as they said: “Hurt me, lie to me, bring me a glowing glass of milk. Anything! Just don’t leave me.”
As for Thandie Newton well . . . she’s admittedly easy on the eyes. I also liked her in “Jefferson in Paris”, “Mission Impossible: II” and “Crash”. And in “TTAC” it’s obvious Tak Fujimoto’s camera is very much in love with her. But it’s the same situation as with Hepburn. Maybe my eyes have been glossed over by the original film. But Hepburn had a trademark quality she brought to every performance she had on screen, and it’s entirely missing from Newton. Perhaps if Wahlberg and Newton were to star in a completely different story (“Jefferson Visits a Starbucks”) it would be worth watching.
(I mentioned the cinematography. This being a Demme film, you spend an awful lot of time watching facial close-ups in “TTAC”. Fortunately Demme tried to find interesting faces to look at.)
Problem #2 with “TTAC”: The way the solution to the mystery was depicted. Demme decided to have Newton figure the mystery out before anyone else and, through that, set the audience up for a climax which was far less dramatic than what we got from Donen. The same business in the 1963 film was much more energetic: with James Coburn (and then Grant) suddenly whirling about as the penny dropped and they (along with the audience) realized what was Going On. With Donen’s way everything happens at the same time, and there’s that much more excitement for the audience to share. Plus Donen’s follow-though, with a cat-and-mouse manhunt through several Paris landmarks, is much more tense than the Mexican standoff on a rainy sidewalk which Demme provided.
For Problem #3 I should mention Overall Casting. On points alone Donen comes out head and shoulders over Demme. But, in all fairness, Demme shouldn’t be entirely dumped on. I’m not going to claim, for instance, that Tim Robbins was better than Walter Matthau in the role of the government agent that the character of Reggie was obliged to seek help from. And James Coburn and George Kennedy are certainly sinister enough in their own respective parts (although Kennedy’s character has an artificial hand which, in the days before motion-capture and CGI, never came out looking quite right). On the other hand: any of Demme’s choices for villains (Jong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Ted Levine) would’ve been more suitably evil than Donen’s selection of Ned Glass (who gets my nomination for Wimpiest Bad Guy in motion picture history).
And, whereas Jacques Marin does a wonderful job in the Donen film as Inspector Grandpierre, I must admit to a fondness for Christine Boisson as Commandant Jeanne Dominique. Properly authoritative she is also a charmboat with one of the prettiest smiles I’ve ever seen on an actress. If she were to arrest me I’d very much go quietly and submit to a thorough search.
Problem #4: Already working with an excellent story, Demme tries to gild the lily by being too hip for the room. In-jokes involving “Shoot the Pianist” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” are all very nice, but when you’re in possession of a finely crafted sports car there’s no need to add a bike rack on top.
Problem #5: I had already mentioned the numerous close-ups. Nothing too particularly bad about that in itself, but another of the selling points of Donen’s film was in his generous use of the scenery in Paris. We see Paris in “TTAC”, but it seems that we spend more time in Jong-Hoon Park’s nostrils than we do on the Rue Saint-Lazare. For all that it matterd, Demme could’ve filmed “TTAC” in Lompoc.
So . . . did I like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Well I’ve already mentioned a few of what I believed to be the selling points in “TTAC”. Here are some others:
1. Two appearances by Charles Anzavour. Once in a film clip, and then again at the end.
2. “TTAC” has definitely made me want to stay at the Hotel Langlois.
3. Yes, on the one hand “TTAC” doesn’t benefit from an excellent Henry Mancini film score. One the other hand it does feature a very nice selection of what’s called “world music”, and I’ll always be grateful to the film for having introduced me to Rachid Taha’s work.
I’ve probably failed to exonerate myself fully for having “TTAC” attach itself to my film consciousness like a barnacle. And I fully accept the brickbats. My reasons for enjoying “TTAC” are rather like purchasing a entire house simply because you’re in love with the knicknacks lined up on a windowsill. But sometimes the knicknacks will include a glass paperweight . . . sometimes the paperweight will be touched by the sunlight . . . and sometimes the light will catch your eye.