The Truth About Charlie

on October 25, 2002 by Wade Major
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Jonathan Demme's work has always had a certain Hitchcockian sensibility--it was, after all, his unabashed homage to the master, 1979's "Last Embrace," that propelled him from the Corman exploitation factory into the realm of the legitimate. With a demonstrated flair for suspense and a commanding style all his own, Demme proved himself far more than merely a skilled imitator. And though it would take him more than two decades to return to the genre with "The Silence of the Lambs," landing himself the Oscar that Hitchcock never won, his worldview rarely strayed far from Hitch's: life as an absurdist's ball to which only the very good and the very bad have been invited to dance.

No surprise, then, that Demme would be drawn to the challenge of remaking Stanley Donen's 1963 "Charade," itself something of a Hitchcockian homage with exotic European locales, zig-zagging plot twists, flip-flopping character identities and, of course, the missing money--Hitchcock's so-called "McGuffin." Unfortunately for Demme, "Charade" was also very much a Stanley Donen movie, dominated as much by the quirky Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant romance as by the mechanics of Peter Stone's script. Made by Donen during a pause between periods of prolific output, "Charade" is a strangely reflective piece, a sort of musical without music that is every bit as rhythmic, fluid and buoyant as any of Donen's actual musicals. In Demme's updated and only slightly reconceptualized "The Truth About Charlie," the Hitchcockian elements are firmly intact--the plot is nearly identical--but Donen's playful spirit, his giddy sense of fun, is sorely lacking. That's not to say the film is humorless--at times it almost verges on camp--but Demme can't ever seem to find the right balance.

With Mark Wahlberg standing in for Cary Grant, Thandie Newton for Audrey Hepburn and Tim Robbins for Walter Matthau, "The Truth About Charlie" builds its intrigue around Brit-in-Paris Regina Lambert (Newton), a newlywed turned newly-widowed when her Swiss husband (Stephen Dillane) ends up dead. Just as quickly, Regina finds herself at the center of a police investigation, tailed by a menacing trio of ne'er-do-wells, wooed by a charming stranger (Wahlberg) and solicited for help by an American spy (Robbins), all of them determined to locate a pile of loot allegedly stolen by her deceased hubby. Naturally, nothing is as it appears, with events getting progressively more tangled before they come anywhere close to detangling.

It's clearly unfair to state the obvious fact that Wahlberg and Newton are not Grant and Hepburn. The young audiences to whom "Charlie" is being marketed quite likely have never seen "Charade" and won't be bothered to make such comparisons. What will bother them, however, is the fact that "Charlie" is only modestly suspenseful and occasionally humorous, and almost never at the same time. Demme, meanwhile, plays endlessly with the camera, indulging his usual penchant for extreme close-ups and jazzy handheld camerawork, seemingly hopeful that an abundance of style will make viewers forget (or not care) that the movie itself really has no tone.

Making matters even more confusing, Demme has elected to make "The Truth About Charlie" a quasi-homage to the French New Wave as well, even though there's nothing remotely "New Wave" about it other than the fact that it takes place in Paris. Figures with direct or nominal attachment to the movement appear in brief or prolonged cameos--Agnes Varda, Charles Aznavour, Anna Karina, Magali Noël--contributing more distractions to a movie already crippled by a lack of directorial focus.

One in-joke that "Charade" buffs will enjoy is to be seen in the opening titles, in which the screenwriting credits cite among the quartet of screenwriters a certain Peter Joshua--the name used by Cary Grant in the original and the inverse of the name used by Mark Wahlberg in "Charlie." Joshua, in this instance, is actually original writer Stone who, in lieu of taking his contractual credit on the remake, opted for a self-referential pseudonym. Ironically, it's the best new joke in the movie. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins, Joong-Hoon Park, Ted Levine, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Christine Boisson and Stephen Dillane. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Jonathan Demme & Steve Schmidt and Peter Joshua and Jessica Bendinger. Produced by Jonathan Demme, Peter Saraf, Edward Saxon. A Universal release. Thriller/Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content/nudity. Running time: 104 min

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