Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:22 pm 
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Grittier Paris haunted by the elegance of the original in this classy remake: not quite a comeback by Jonathan Demme - more of a tease.

It's appropriate that I saw 'The Truth About Charlie' on Halloween night because it's haunted: haunted by the memory of director Jonathan Demme's charming, brilliant films of fifteen and twenty years ago; haunted by visions of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, replaced here by Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton; haunted by the shadow of the nostalgic, gray Paris of Doisneau and Brassai and the French Nouvelle Vague, evoked here while Demme shows us instead the newer, brighter multi-ethnic Paris celebrated in William Klein's book, 'Parigi + Klein'; and haunted above all by the glittering afterglow of 'Charade,' the 1963 film of which 'The Truth About Charlie' is a remake. And finally, this movie, for its director anyway, is haunted by the shade of Demme's late filmmaking nephew Ted, to whose memory 'Charlie' is partly dedicated. It's a bit of a Halloween mystery why Demme did this story at this particular time.

Thandie Newton, Audrey Hepburn's replacement, is charming. Mark Wahlberg is charming too: here at last he's in a context that's quite elegant, and his perpetual desire to please becomes not sleazy or pathetic but appealing and warm. (He's surprisingly suave, and he looks nice in his hats, but he's not as real as he was in 'Boogie Nights' and 'The Yards,' his best roles to date, or as alive as in 'Three Kings,' which made his desire to ingratiate more central and exploited his physicality more successfully.) Tak Fujimoto, Demme's longtime cinematographer, is back making Paris gleam and sparkle. There's a lot of nervous energy happening in the background again, as in Demme's earlier films, this time lots of cameos and allusions, and even several appearances, singing, right now, gray but still eloquent, by the great Charles Aznavour. Instead of the canned movie music Henry Mancini produced in 1963, there is a glittering and rich World Beat score. What more could you want?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Demme has not really come back to life, because this is a remake, however free, and the updates and additions have muddled the charm of the original, as the World Beat sometimes overwhelms the dialogue. It's as if Stanley Donen's film were grafted onto 'The Bourne Identity,' but without the momentum of Liman's new movie, or the edge of Matt Damon's performance in it (Wahlberg is like a goofier Matt Damon). The Frenchness here is a bit more authentic than Stanley Donen's --- but just a bit. Tim Robbins is more subtle and menacing than Walter Matthiau. Really, the mise-en-scene is unbelievably rich even if we don't know where a lot of the scenes actually are, so they lose some of their effect. This is certainly a glossy spy-crime-identity thriller with a real romance running through it, as I guess 'Charade' was. There's a heck of a lot of originality and skill gone to waste here, but it just doesn't hang together as well as the original did, and the ending is a muddle. Somehow the action doesn't make a lot of sense much of the time and the movie seems like a collage, which is another Halloween mystery, because Demme has always been a master of clear exposition even of the most convoluted plots.

I don't know where exactly Demme has been of late years. 'Silence of the Lambs' made him famous and 'Philadelphia' established him as the most politically correct of mainstream directors, but those two movies broke the momentum of wit and originality that he had established with the crazy, complex 'Melvin and Howard,' the exhilarating 'Something Wild,' and the hilarious and charming 'Married to the Mob': 'Silence of the Lambs' may have been riveting and well made, but it was a disappointment for fans because it turned its back on the earlier work. Then Demme got involved in minor projects, a filming of Toni Morrison's 'Beloved,' another music documentary, this time about Neil Young, and so on. 'Melvin and Howard,' 'Something Wild' and 'Married to the Mob' weren't remakes. They had an edge of originality that came from the grafting of Demme's hip sensibility onto his down-and-dirty experience as writer and second unit director for Roger Corman and other B-picture makers.

'Silence of the Lambs' was a turn away from the whimsicality and freshness that had marked his previous films, but it was remarkably well done; it was in 'Philadelphia' that Demme began to flounder. The AIDS theme, anchored safely by the star performances of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, may have seemed courageous for a mainstream film, but Demme before that had always given mainstream a fresh and audacious twist, and here there is no humor or quirkiness any more. 'Philadelphia' has only one truly memorable, quintessentially gay scene - the one where the dying Hanks dances to an aria sung by Maria Callas while attached to his IV trolley. The rest, however respectable, is only conventional exposition and without gay credibility. The director got bogged down in political correctness, and it seemed likely that he was not going to make cinematic art any more for a while, if ever.

This new movie is a return - in part, anyway -- to the lighthearted spirit of Demme's great period, but it seems manneristic and a bit empty, since, at the heart of it, it's not his own original work but a safe facsimile of something really much better. This is a tease. Demme could come back to us - I still hope -- if he wanted to. He hasn't lost it. He's just gone astray.

October 31, 2002

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