Director Jonathan Demme skipped the opportunity to direct “Hannibal” (and “Red Dragon,” one supposes) because, having helmed “The Silence of the Lambs,” he didn’t want to do something redundant. So what does he choose instead but a remake–of Stanley Donen’s classic 1963 romantic comedy-mystery “Charade.” No chance of redundancy there.
Of course, Demme is an extravagantly imaginative filmmaker, and he’s not content just to copy the earlier picture. “Charade” was light, effervescent, and ultra-sophisticated, its mixture of amusement and suspense carefully gauged and its style utterly refined; it also had an amazing cast, with the supremely debonair Cary Grant and the radiant Audrey Hepburn perfectly teamed and supported by the likes of Walter Matthau and James Coburn. “The Truth About Charlie,” on the other hand, isn’t merely updated; the tone is completely different. It’s rougher and cruder, with a jagged, jumpy visual style derived–we’re told–from such New Wave flicks as “Breathless,” and in Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, it features leads that have nowhere near the same degree of charm or chemistry. Graceless and inelegant, it’s like the suave, stately-paced “Charade” viewed through the prism of Demme’s own garish, hyperactive “Something Wild” (1986)–not a happy marriage.
The narrative has been radically altered, too. The barest essentials are retained: the murder of Charles Lambert (Stephen Dillane), a mysterious Swiss art dealer, leaves his wife Regina (Newton) confused when the gendarmerie reveals his shady past and multiple aliases. Luckily Regina has just been befriended by a handsome stranger calling himself Joshua Peters (Wahlberg), who offers her aid–something that the beauteous widow needs when a trio of menacing characters (Ted Levine, Joong-Hoon Park and Lisa Gay Hamilton) show up demanding dough that they say Lambert had cheated them of. There also appears a US government agent named Bartholomew (Tim Robbins), who enlists Regina’s help to recover the money, wherever it might be, for the impoverished American taxpayer, from whom he alleges it was stolen. As the convolutions of the plot accelerate, Regina has to decide who’s who and whether she can trust anybody while trying to work out where the loot might be stashed. The most pressing issue is the reliability of Peters, whom she’s beginning to find extraordinarily attractive.
In this general outline, “Charlie” is very like “Charade.” But the specifics are changed so much that in the deeper sense the script bears little resemblance to Peter Stone’s original; and the alterations are mostly ill-advised. (It’s appropriate that Stone, one of the four scribblers credited with the rewrite, has chosen to veil his contribution under the name Peter Joshua, one of the aliases Grant used in the 1963 flick and about whom the press notes are suspiciously tight-lipped. Given that the revision excises much of the cleverness and wit of his original, it’s understandable that he should have wanted to cloak his participation under one of his creation’s pseudonyms.) The flashback episode in which the origins of the mystery lie is switched from World War II to the dissolution of Yugoslavia for obvious chronological reasons, but it’s less clear why the villainous figures have been toned down so markedly, too–all of them have been wronged in some way and so invite a degree of empathy rather than a simple hiss. (Even Charlie is given a hard past, complete with the introduction of a dotty mother who attempts to avenge his murder.) As a result, the macabre elements of the original film are muted here–most of the deaths are transformed into merely unfortunate accidents, and the gruesomely funny fates that befall the 1963 stalkers are turned into almost sad demises. The lead couple is radically altered, too, with the woman depicted in more frantic, frazzled tones and the man reduced to a lovesick puppy-dog by the time it’s over (their last scene together is truly embarrassing in this respect, and far less amusing than before). For some reason Demme chooses also to spend much more celluloid showing the police tailing Regina and Peter–a hard-bitten inspector (Christine Boisson) who’s having it on with her assistant (Simon Abkarian); and since they’re terribly uninteresting figures, it’s time pretty much wasted. The big revelation at the end is morphed as well, adding a couple of twists that frankly seem labored.
The director’s stylistic decisions don’t come off very well, either. The “New Wave” visuals come across as little more than an affectation, particularly when Demme italicizes his references all too blatantly. When Charles Aznavour shows up, for instance, is it really necessary to inform the audience explicitly that the allusion is to “Shoot The Piano Player”? Are glimpses of posters necessary to tell us who Anna Karina is when she appears to warble a tune (one of several musical intrusions that are just too cute to be anything but irritating)? The goal is apparently to give “Charlie” a breezy, spontaneous air, but the jittery hand-held camerawork, quick cuts, and circular shots swirling around characters induce more vertigo than exhilaration.
As for the cast, they have the hopeless task of trying to match peerless predecessors. Newton is a lovely girl, but she doesn’t possess Hepburn’s effortless grace, and Wahlberg, while he tosses off a few French phrases skillfully enough, is too coarse and blankly inexpressive to compare with Grant. (It’s certainly impossible to imagine Cary engaging in the brutal stairway brawl with Park that Wahlberg indulges in.) Park, Levine and Hamilton (the latter from “The Practice”) can’t hold a candle to the wonderful lip-smacking nastiness of Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Robbins comes off best as the mysterious Bartholomew. He doesn’t efface memories of the delightfully dour Matthau, but does come up with a few amusing line readings. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is hampered by the style Demme has imposed on the picture–Paris looks surprisingly dingy and unattractive in the visual din–and after listening to Rachel Portman’s forgettable score for a hundred minutes you’re likely to emerge humming Henry Mancini’s. (To be fair to Portman, the soundtrack is mostly given over to a grab-bag of songs, some reasonably pleasant.)
When Gus Van Sandt remade “Psycho” in 1998, he was ridiculed for attempting a virtual carbon copy, shot-by-shot, of Hitchcock’s masterpiece; but at least his effort, flawed as it was, evinced a sense of reverence for the original that Demme’s misguided revision of “Charade” lacks, despite his professed affection for Donen’s picture. The sad truth about “Charlie” is that while it isn’t a complete travesty, it would have been better left unmade.