WRITTEN REVIEW – Annie (2014)
Directed by: Will Gluck
Written by: Will Gluck & Aline Brosh McKenna
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne & Bobby Cannavale
Music: Greg Kurstin, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, Sia & Will Gluck
Release Date: December 26th 2014
While the character of Annie first originated in the Harold Grey comic-strips entitled “Little Orphan Annie” in 1924, she’s mainly known for the successful 1977 broadway musical by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin entitled “Annie”. After numerous adaptations on TV and film it’s been proven that Annie is a character that resonates with audience members regardless of time period so, naturally, we have a modern re-imagining set in 2014 New York.
This version comes to us from producers with an impeccable pedigree, such as Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jay Z and James Lassiter with Academy Award nominated actress Quvenzhané Wallis in the lead role. Does this interpretation of “Annie” do the character justice or is it the hard-knock life for her?
Set in contemporary New York, Annie (Wallis) is a foster-child living in Harlem under the oppressive thumb of Miss Hannigan (Diaz), who has several other orphaned children in her care to claim state-benefits. When multi-millionaire William Stacks (Foxx) who made his fortune selling smart-phones accidentally saves Annie’s life, he decides to temporarily adopt her to help his upcoming mayoral campaign in order to improve his disastrous public-image. Can Annie bring out the best in Stacks to help his campaign or will the potential discovery of her real-life parents come between the two?
I’m opening with this point because this is literally how the movie opens. ‘Annie‘ begins in a classroom where children are giving a presentation on United States Presidents. One of these girls is called Annie. She’s a red-head, white, spectacularly “un-hip” and is presented as a laughing stock in comparison to the new “hip n’ cool” version of Annie that this movie aims to present. The red-haired Annie does a stupid tap dance and walks off after receiving a cold reception before the new Annie does her presentation that is met with acclaim.
If there’s one thing an adaptation should never do, it’s act like it’s better than its lineage and ‘Annie‘ does this immediately. At least last year’s ‘The Lone Ranger‘ waited around 140 minutes before making fun of the Ranger’s iconic catch-phrase.
The movie MIGHT be justified in this approach if its new version of Annie was tolerable, but Quvenzhané Wallis’ interpretation of the precocious scamp is incredibly grating. This version of Annie is cocky to an obnoxious degree and while the original Annie from the hit broadway musical wasn’t exactly a saint, she had a naive sweetness to her that justified some of her lesser traits as a character. Wallis’ Annie is loud, smart-mouthed and is only sympathetic due to her status as an orphan looking for her parents – though the movie seems to be aware that this is her only sympathetic trait as it milks this angle for all it’s worth in the first 15 minutes.
Quvenzhané Wallis is a great young actor and with better material, this contemporary version of Annie could have resonated with children and adults alike, but she’s too smart-mouthed for kids to relate to and too loud and inconsistent as a person for adults to root for. There are a couple of small moments where Annie shows hereself to be a selfless child, such as when she’s invited into William Stacks’ limousine where she is offered as much candy as she wants and she immediately gives it to her foster-sisters, but these small-touches of kindness contrast entirely with how she acts the rest of the time making these few moments fail to ring true.
However, any version of the story lives or dies based on the relationship and growth between Annie and William Stacks, but this is where the movie stumbles hardest. Jamie Foxx is clearly having fun in the role and he has lots of entertaining personality quirks that are entirely his own indicating his strengths as an actor and ability to breath life into the scenes he’s in and play off his co-stars, but the dynamic between the two characters is surface-level at absolute best.
There’s no progress between the two’s developing relationship. Annie is supposed to be bringing out the kind-hearted nature of Stacks that he forgot that he had, but we don’t see any of that potential until the plot requires him to have it much later on in the movie. Also, Annie doesn’t do anything to really bring out a convincing personality change. The two go to a movie premier of a tween-supernatural romance movie (easily the funniest scene in the movie) and Annie cooks two terrible meals for him and suddenly William has completely reformed as a person.
This problem also extends to Rose Byrne (who, incidentally, is an absurdly talented actor who really should be more famous than she is) and her character’s romance with William Stacks. Her character, Grace, is meant to be smitten but professional as she is Stacks’ PA, but because Stacks doesn’t show any subliminal endearing qualities which have supposedly been brought out by the mere presence of Annie until at least the half-way point of this nearly 2 hour movie, her infatuation doesn’t make much sense.
There’s a very heavy emphasis in ‘Annie‘ on excess consumerism and while that naturally comes with the territory when adapting this source-material (we’re talking about a poor orphan who finds happiness with adopted by a multi-billionaire, after all), the movie goes above and beyond in order to paint shady corporations in a heavenly light. A key plot-point later on in the movie involves Stacks’ smartphone company to be able to trace, record and view any messages, posts or signals from their phones, which the movie paints as a noble act with zero downsides or morality issues. Considering that the NSA’s shady data-collection practises have been big controversies in 2014, it comes across as incredibly tone-deaf on the part of the movie. It also doesn’t help that many of the film’s narrative elements are propelled forward because of the virality of online media, including tweets and YouTube videos, however the video clips the audience see online are ones that have not only been taken on high-quality film cameras as opposed to smartphones, but are also fully edited with perfect sound quality. The same goes for some of the viral pictures that are posted on Twitter later on in the movie – clearly taken from high-quality professional cameras as opposed to smartphones.
This may seem like a nit-pick, but because ‘Annie‘ is trying so hard to include these elements to appeal to a modern, social media obsessed demographic, these flubs are ones that will instantly break the illusion to those same viewers who will very promptly pick up on the mistakes.
In the previously mentioned scene where Annie and Stacks go to a tween movie-premier, one of the characters takes out a smartphone and Stacks points out that it’s his company’s phone. Grace then leans to him and said it’s a paid product placement and “It’s the only thing that’s keeping the movie business afloat”.
The sheer friggin’ IRONY of that statement coming from a movie distributed by Sony; a company that has recently released some of the most product placement ladened movies in recent years with ‘The Smurfs‘, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘, ‘Skyfall‘ and others, is simply astounding. That line from Grace didn’t come across as a joke. It came across as a pitiful defence from Sony trying to justify its rampant ideologies of late.
Incidentally, Stacks’ campaign manager, played by an embarrassed looking Bobby Cannavale, says that he’s helped many political leaders get into power including the late Kim Jong-il.
Oh, the ironing is delicious.
Speaking of embarrassing, Cameron Diaz, a genuinely strong actor with great comedic chops, is simply terrible here. She’s not only abominably miscast in the role of Miss Hannigan, but the way she speaks and acts indicates that she’s just walked-off the set of an entirely different movie. It also doesn’t help that her character is meant to be a successful and talented pop-star who has had a fall from grace yet she doesn’t sing her songs as much as she does loudly speak them.
Which brings me to the music. The broadway musical, despite being a huge hit with audiences, is only really known for two songs when you get right down to it; “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow”, meaning that any adaptation has the up-hill battle of having to fill it with the remaining songs that haven’t nearly stood the test of time. As a result, ‘Annie‘ has brought along current rapper Jay-Z to oversee the production on the musical numbers arranged by Sia and Greg Kurstin. With all this talent involved, it’s strange to report that the music in ‘Annie‘ is completely boilerplate and lifeless.
And a big part of that is auto-tune overload. It’s impossible to believe that these radically augmented sounds are coming out of the performers terribly lip-synced mouths (you had ONE job, actors!) and doesn’t auto-tune kind of go against the very idea of the genuine feel that comes with broadway musicals? The instrumentation of certain songs is strong, such as “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and “Opportunity”, but just as you start to tap your toes to the strong beats, the poorly managed auto-tune just yanks you right out of the moment. And while the beat is strong during many of the songs, it feels like there is never a quiet moment in the movie. There’s always music, noise or dialogue and there’s barely a down-moment for the audience to breath or let the emotions settle.
It also doesn’t help that ‘Annie‘ is staged and directed very poorly. If it wasn’t for the A-list cast and the number of extras in certain scenes, ‘Annie‘ would feel like a TV-movie (especially when a pitiful excuse for a “car chase” occurs in the final act). While the song “Opportunity” is strong (though it might as well be subtitled “This song is only here for a ‘Best Original Song’ nomination at awards season”), the staging is just so flat and dull with Annie simply singing on a stage as the camera occasionally cuts to Jamie Foxx trying to act sincere and moved by the tired ordeal. “Little Girls” opens with what’s meant to be a two-minute long opening shot, but the cuts in the edit as so obvious and sloppily handled that director Will Gluck shouldn’t have even bothered. One of the few original songs on the soundtrack “This City’s Yours” is the most oddly staged as it’s just Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis strapped to their seats whilst riding a helicopter singing to each other. It’s such a weird and counter-intuitive way to stage a song that’s meant to be so grand in its scope and ambition. There’s the germ of an idea where many of the songs are started by the sound of the streets and day-to-day activities of the people in New York City (for example “It’s The Hard Knock Life” starts with the sounds of the foster-girls cleaning their apartment), but it’s not nearly explored or utilised enough.
There’s definitely a place for a contemporary adaptation of ‘Annie‘ which is what makes this lifeless and mishandled adaptation so much more disappointing. Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne are well suited to the source material, but the clunky re-working of the source material and creative choices give them very little to work with. The badly staged musical numbers, however, are the true nail in the coffin here. Buried deep in the heart of this movie is a film that could have resonated with younger audiences, but that’s certainly not how it wound up.
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Posted: 27th Dec 14