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Come back, John Huston, all is forgiven. When the grizzled Hollywood veteran was attached to direct the 1982 film version of Broadway’s mammoth hit Annie, which had fetched a record sum for screen rights, much collective head-scratching ensued. Nothing in Huston’s output indicated an affinity for family-friendly movie musicals. Pundits were no less mystified once they saw the film, which suggested an agonized disconnect between director and material. Yet audiences who were kids back then regard it as a classic, playing fast and loose with that term. Maybe today’s tweens will feel similar affection for this misconceived contemporary update, but they needn’t be encouraged.
The overwhelming impression from this very loose remake — directed with a stunning lack of musicality by Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends With Benefits), who co-wrote the witless screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) — is that the creative team doesn’t actually like the material much. If not for gushing testaments in the press notes, you might be tempted to think they’re embarrassed by it.
All but a handful of the existing songs have been shredded, often retaining just a signature line or two and drowning it in desperately hip polyrhythmic sounds, aurally assaultive arrangements and inane new lyrics. The original songs, by Sia, Greg Kurstin and Gluck, are forgettable synthetic riffs that recall those boring filler tracks you skipped over on old Justin Timberlake albums. Considering that among the film’s producers is Jay Z, whose 1998 sampling of “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” was an epic encounter in pop-culture history, this bland R&B/hip-hop Muzak is a disappointment.
Every ounce of charm has been pulverized out of the musical in a strained effort to drag it into the social-media age. What’s even sadder is that the same could be said for the film’s young star, Quvenzhane Wallis, who brought heroic authenticity to her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, creating a lyrical poster child for the marginalized poor. Here, she’s reduced to one-note, processed pluckiness, as if she’s been cloned from those overconfident children of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith; the latter couple optioned the material and are also producers.
Putting aside the grating performances, the clumsy direction, the visual ugliness and the haphazard development of story, character and relationships, the movie is hobbled by its intrinsic unsuitability for contemporary retelling.
Popularized in the 1920s and ‘30s in the Little Orphan Annie syndicated comic strip, the Depression-era Cinderella story follows the adventures of a ginger-haired moppet, her dog Sandy and Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the billionaire tycoon who takes her under his benevolent wing. In the musical, not only does Annie transform Warbucks from a gruff capitalist into a humanitarian softie, her eternal optimism also enchants FDR and his jaded cabinet, inspiring the New Deal. The pieces simply don’t fit together in the present day.
The main carryover, along with Annie and her foster-kid pals, is the Warbucks figure, renamed Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). He’s a germophobic telecommunications giant who maintains his monopoly by hiding cellphone towers in landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. Aided by his trusted vp Grace (Rose Byrne) and oily campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale), Stacks is running for mayor of New York City to gain the political traction necessary to grow his empire. Basically, he’s Michael Bloomberg, in tech instead of financial media, though the arc of the character’s humanization is barely coherent.
A chance collision on the street with Annie and a resulting YouTube video give Guy the brain wave to fix Stacks’ likability problems via strategic photo opportunities with the spunky tyke. A lunch turns into an invitation to stay at Stacks’ vast apartment — a coldly ultramodern computerized penthouse that looks as inviting as a dental clinic, even with those views. Naturally, Annie warms Stacks’ chilly heart, opening his eyes to the corruption of big business and politics and the superior values of love and family. He redeems himself by funding a center for child literacy, which is just like the end of Zoolander, except it’s neither fun nor entertaining.
This movie’s notions of joy are aggressively fabricated, nowhere more so than when Grace gives Annie a whirlwind tour of the skypad, singing a butchered version of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” Choreographer Zach Woodlee‘s moves mostly involve running and flailing all over the place with no rhythm, while (presumably for comic relief) an ingratiating Russian city employee (Stephanie Kurtzuba) galumphs around, getting in the way — much like cinematographer Michael Grady‘s lurching cameras.
If there’s a more awkward musical number ever committed to film, I can’t recall it right now. Oh wait, there is one later with the big finale, “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” in which Wallis, Foxx and Byrne get to — gulp — dance, while everyone else stands and sways, wearing frozen smiles. These scenes make you wonder if Gluck has ever seen a movie musical.
One of the few memorable elements of Huston’s movie was Carol Burnett‘s boozy comic caricature as child-hating orphanage den mother Miss Hannigan. Here, we get Cameron Diaz, who mistakes strident and obnoxious for funny, giving Cannavale some competition for broadest shtick. The character takes in foster kids at her Harlem apartment to get a monthly handout from the city, drowning the sorrows of her failed music career (she was kicked out of C+C Music Factory before the group’s breakthrough) and hurling herself at any man within range, except the one who inexplicably wants her (David Zayas). Her bowdlerized “Little Girls” is a low point.
The subplot from the original, in which Miss Hannigan schemes to pass off impostors as the birth parents who abandoned Annie, survives. However, like most of Gluck’s chaotic storytelling, it’s handled sloppily, careening into a suspense-free helicopter chase during which Annie is tracked via social media. The film’s pandering load of 21st century concessions is tiresome indeed, reaching its nadir when, OMG, Katy Perry tweets about Annie!
The biggest hole in the movie is the poignancy that’s missing from the by-the-numbers process of Annie, Stacks and Grace becoming a family. Even Annie’s regular Friday-night pilgrimages to the restaurant Domani (Italian for “Tomorrow,” geddit?), where her parents promised to return, is more cloying than affecting since Wallis conveys so little emotion. That same lack of vulnerability applies to all the foster kids, even in the guaranteed heartstring-tugger “Maybe.” When an orphan advocates, “Save your dreams for good stuff, like shopping with an unlimited credit card,” the film seems to be pushing materialistic desire over any yearning for family.
Of the cast, Foxx escapes most unscathed, despite having to do more spit-takes than Danny Thomas. He’s also the only one of the principals who can actually sing, though on his solo, “The City’s Yours” (a distinctly minor addition to the canon of Big Apple anthems), he goes for an embarrassing sexy-soul-daddy sound that’s out of character. Even in a movie Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life, Wallis clearly is no singer. And Byrne, who can usually be relied upon to add some sparkle, is as wan here as her feeble vocals.
The movie opens with a carrot-topped school classmate of Annie’s, who shares the same name and is cut from the character’s traditional cloth. (She’s played by Taylor Richardson, an alternate in the lead role in the recent Broadway revival.) It’s one of a number of winking meta-references to the original musical, along with a sight gag nodding to Warbucks’ bald dome. But it’s a telling statement that the playout song on the end credits is “Moonquake Lake,” a disposable pop theme to a movie whose premiere Annie & Co. attend. (It features Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna, with other gratuitous celebrity cameos elsewhere.) The song has absolutely nothing to do with Annie’s story, which feeds the confusion as to why the filmmakers even bothered with the source material.
Not to pour salt on Sony’s unfortunate hack-attack wounds, but if Annie was less downloaded than other releases illegally leaked online, it might be because audiences are not stupid and caught a whiff of what was in store.
Production companies: Overbrook Entertainment, Marcy Media Films, Olive Bridge Entertainment
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Zoe Margaret Coletti, Nicolette Pierini, Eden Duncan-Smith, Amanda Troya, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Dorian Missick, Tracie Thoms, Mike Birbiglia, Ray Iannicelli
Director: Will Gluck
Screenwriters: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the musical with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and on “Little Orphan Annie” and Tribune Content Agency
Executive producers: Celia Costas, Alicia Emmrich
Director of photography: Michael Grady
Production designer: Marcia Hinds
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Editor: Tia Nolan
Choreographer: Zach Woodlee
Casting director: Kathleen Chopin
Rated PG, 118 minutes.
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