Director Jonathan Demme is not the most linear of thinkers. The nearly 5-minute-long speech he bumbled through when accepting his Best Director award for "Silence of the Lambs" remains perhaps the single most incoherent performance in Oscar history. It seems only fitting that Demme directed the Talking Heads' 1984 film "Stop Making Sense."
Still, there's much to be said for illogic when it comes bundled with Demme's abundant supply of zigzag lightning in the brain. With its sensational editing and perfect camera angles, "Stop Making Sense" may be the only rock concert movie that ever kept large audiences in their seats (or dancing in the aisles) all the way through.
Demme has also delivered wildly inventive comedies like "Melvin and Howard" and "Something Wild." In the 1990s though, he got bogged down with two leaden victimist dramas: the AIDS story "Philadelphia" and the Oprah Winfrey-Toni Morrison flop "Beloved."
In "The Truth About Charlie," Demme tries to climb out of this hole he has dug for himself by building his movie on a wacky what-if conceit. Remember that glossy 1963 romantic comedy-thriller "Charade," with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in a preposterous but well-crafted Hollywood crowd-pleaser about intrigue in Paris? Well, what if "Charade" had instead been made by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard or one of the other Parisian New Wave directors of 1963?
These days, though, the demand in America for tributes to French cultural icons is nigh on nonexistent. The French joke has replaced the Polish joke as America's favorite ethnic slur. To be acclaimed a wit, just mention the French surrendering in World War II, or not bathing, or admiring Jerry Lewis. Try it. It's easy!
Yet, as the late Richard Grenier pointed out in Commentary, the New Wave auteurs were actually quite pro-American during their best years. Starting out as lowly film critics in the 1950s, these ambitious young men on the make realized that their stairway to fame was clogged by an older generation of French pro-Soviet intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. So, to distinguish themselves from these Moscow-worshippers, Truffaut and Godard worshipped Hollywood, especially John Wayne movies.
When President Charles DeGaulle started handing out cultural subsidies in 1958, the boys moved up to making exciting little movies in an aggressively casual style, using jagged editing, improvised dialogue, ramshackle lighting and self-conscious references to earlier movies.
So, is remaking "Charade" in the manner of "The 400 Blows" or "Breathless" another one of Demme's strokes of genius? Sadly, no. "The Truth About Charlie" is fairly awful -- inept, unfunny and pointless.
Why? "Charade" resembles last year's "Ocean's Eleven" -- a piece of fluff with no justification other than its transcendent professionalism.
But what a refutation of the French auteur theory "Charade" is! The director, Stanley Donen of "Singing in the Rain" fame, is no slouch, but look at all the other talent involved. Cary Grant is No. 2 on the American Film Institute's list of male screen legends, and Audrey Hepburn is No. 3 on the distaff side.
Then there's the supporting cast: Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy, each an Oscar winner. And the score was by Henry Mancini during that short spell when he was the most exciting film composer ever.
Strip away all this glamour and expertise, and you are left with a nearly incomprehensible storyline about a woman who learns her late husband stole a lot of money from his scary cohorts and now they want it back.
The New Wave is notoriously not new anymore. Its innovations have become so widespread that "Charlie," with its jerky handheld cameras and sickly lighting, will remind audiences more of an episode of "Cops" than of "Alphaville."
There's no point in criticizing stars Mark Wahlberg ("Planet of the Apes") and Thandie Newton ("MI-2") for not being Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Demme, though, is too busy amusing himself with tiny in-jokes -- such as having various elderly actors from New Wave classics make cameo appearances -- to ensure that his stars look attractive.
He introduces Wahlberg with a shot from below that emphasizes the beefcake's burgeoning jowls. And Demme largely ignores Newton's exquisite profile in favor of driver's-license quality mug shots highlighting the bags under her eyes.
Having Newton play the heroine as a complete ninny doesn't help either.
Demme says, "Paris is (now) a much more overtly diverse city. We really played to that." His fascination with multiculturalism was a major asset in 1986's "Something Wild," but 16 years later, it's old news. Worse, focusing on what's no longer French about Paris makes the City of Light look like a host of other multiethnic big cities, such as London or Toronto. "Charade" was set in the "Paris!" of dreams. In "The Truth About Charlie," though, Paris looks more like "Sydney on the Seine."
Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content/nudity.
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