When Sidney Lumet adapted the 1975 Broadway hit “The Wiz” for the screen in 1978, the contemporary Harlem update of “The Wizard of Oz,” with Diana Ross ludicrously cast as Dorothy, seemed simply misguided. By contrast Will Gluck’s updating of the 1977 smash “Annie,” which brings the tale of the little orphan girl into the present, comes across as positively perverse. The musical was never anything more than an family-friendly exercise in nostalgia, in which the sloppily sentimental Depression-era plot overcame a weak book and, except for “Tomorrow” (the seventies’ answer to today’s equally ubiquitous “Let It Go”), mediocre score. Pulling it into the twenty-first century drains it of any charm it once had. Even the problematic John Huston 1982 film and Rob Marshall’s 1999 telefilm were better than this hapless exercise.
The movie shows its dismissive attitude toward its source from the very first scene, in a classroom scene where a “traditional” red-haired Annie gets shunted offstage to make way for the new one, a Afro-haired spitfire played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who proceeds to lead her classmates in a hip-hoppy take on the New Deal. So much for the FDR component of the play.
The new Annie, you see, isn’t the resident of an orphanage, but one of a group of girls housed in a foster home run by nasty Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), an alcoholic broad who takes in the kids only for the money the state pays her. And Annie’s determined to find her real parents, hanging out every Friday night in front of Domani, the restaurant where they abandoned her years before, promising to return someday. As for Daddy Warbucks, he’s transformed into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cell-phone magnate who’s built an empire on a promise of no dropped calls and is now, for some reason, running for mayor, despite the fact that he’s a germaphobe who really doesn’t like people—not even his devoted aide Grace (Rose Byrne) or his sleazy campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale).
Annie and Stacks come together when she’s distracted crossing a street and the billionaire pulls her out of the way of a van. That might have been that, but a passerby captures the act on his cell-phone, and the shot goes viral, upping Stacks’ poll numbers. That convinces Guy to build on the public’s reaction by using Annie as a campaign pawn, which leads to Stacks reluctantly agreeing to let her move into his sleek penthouse pad for the duration. Naturally, a bond slowly builds between them that presages adoption, although a plot by Guy and Hannigan to recruit a couple to claim her as their own brings on a silly chase finale—driven by social media, no less.
Throughout this “Annie,” credited to Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna (with a nod to Thomas Meehan’s Broadway book), what’s most notable is a crassly materialistic outlook, emphasizing Stacks’ palatial accommodations, all the high-tech goodies his wealth can buy, and the comp tickets to movie premieres and parties his status brings (clips from a “Twilight”-style teen romance featuring cameos by Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher fall flat). Of course we’re supposed to understand that what’s really important in the end is the love that eventually brings Annie, Will and Grace together as a family-to-be, but since all three are purely synthetic figures, their relationship carries no emotional resonance, especially since the performances are so drab. Byrne is the worst of the three, bringing nothing to her role but a certain primness, but young Wallis delivers a one-note turn that exudes spunk but not much else (and in this case one might be tempted to second Lou Grant’s contempt for spunk). Foxx fares best, even though his character is basically a caricature, not only because he’s a naturally ingratiating presence but mostly because he can actually sing and dance.
That’s more than can be said of virtually everybody else in the cast. Wallis’ thin voice sounds electronically manipulated, and Byrne contributes little in that department. And while Cannavale seems to have some talent in that department, he’s forced to ham it up so terribly as the stock villain that one can barely stand to watch him. Even at that he’s preferable to Diaz, who’s gruesomely miscast as Hannigan and responds by chewing the scenery and screeching her way through her “Little Girls” number. (Why the neighborhood shop owner played by likable David Zayas should be besotted with her is beyond understanding.)
That song, along with “Tomorrow,” “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here, “Easy Street,” “I Don’t Need Anything But You” and “Maybe,” are among those retained from the original Broadway show, and taken as a whole—especially as clumsily performed as here, in mostly atrocious backup arrangements that feature lots of apparently synthesized “clapping” sounds to accompany droning bass figurations—they confirm that this was not one of Charles Strouse’s more inspired scores (and that the lyrics by Moose Charnin remain incredibly banal). Strouse’s name, incidentally, is among those written on the blackboard amidst those of American presidents in the initial classroom scene—a dubious honor indeed.
While the singing is poor, however, the dancing is worse. The supporting kid contingent in Hannigan’s home seem to have some terpsichorean talent, and Foxx shows a few moves, but otherwise the musical numbers suffer from choreography by Zach Woodlee that’s generically athletic but nothing more, and are shot and stitched together (by cinematographer Michael Grady and editor Tia Nolan) in a hyperkinetic style that seems designed to camouflage the fact that the performers are just jumping around aimlessly. Given those clattering accompaniments, the effect is noisy but dull.
It’s a pity that families who will be searching for some Christmas entertainment will find that what they’d hoped might be a gift is instead a cinematic lump of coal. But the sad fact is that a not-very-good Broadway musical has now spawned three not-very-good movies, with this third attempt the worst of the lot.