It’s a Hard-Knock Life for Reimagined Annie
The only thing keeping director Will Gluck’s (Easy A) and co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna’s (The Devil Wears Prada) newfangled adaptation of Broadway perennial and comic strip icon Annie from being a full-blown abomination is its principal cast. 12 Years a Slave starlet Quvenzhané Wallis is a wonderful choice to play the titular orphan who always seems to know a sunnier tomorrow is right around the corner. Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx appears to be having a grand time taking on the visage of a Daddy Warbucks for the 21st century, transformed here into billionaire cell phone magnate and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks. Rounding things out, Rose Byrne shines as his charming assistant Grace, proving her scene-stealing work in Neighbors was hardly a fluke.
As good as they are, however, it’s not mincing words for me to admit that, after the first 30 minutes or so, I couldn’t help but realize this version of Annie was in serious trouble. By the time the climactic plot mechanics started to kick in I was close to being downright angry, and if the film had stopped right there and I’d never seen how it ended I seriously doubt I would have minded. Gluck and McKenna have taken the heart out of this story, drained it of all its clear-eyed, slightly whimsical emotional honesty, transforming the stalwart production into a mechanical, by-the-numbers disaster that’s close to impossible to endure, let alone enjoy.
There’s little of Thomas Meehan’s original book left, the filmmakers making significant changes to both the narrative as well as to the classic songs themselves (from composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin). There’s even less of the late Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie,” this update throwing in a few random bits of homage to the iconic comic strip, but mostly acting as if it never existed in the first place. All of the familiar stuff is either thrown out entirely or devalued to the point of insignificance, even the show’s signature tune “Tomorrow” given bizarre short shrift, making it feel borderline inconsequential.
For those needing a refresher, the story follows Annie, an adorable, intelligent and spunky foster kid currently living with a number of other orphaned youths under the roof of the miserable and unhappy Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). By chance Annie runs smack-dab into the arms of Will Stacks, his conniving and unscrupulous campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) seeing her as a political opportunity his candidate should immediately exploit. Soon she’s living with the billionaire in his massive downtown apartment as his ward, the young girl quickly melting the ice around the cell titan’s heart, making him realize there’s more to life than the next business deal.
It all follows the predictable path, up to and including Annie starting Stacks down the path of making good on his long suppressed feeling for Grace, everything building to a horrific, duplicitous move by Guy aided by Miss Hannigan that could destroy this family-in-the-making before it ever has the chance to form. Songs are sung, dances are danced, and dog Sandy is saved from certain doom thanks to an impromptu visit to an animal shelter, all of it happening with a perfunctory certainty that’s close to noxious.
There is no rhyme to this film. There is no reason. Visually it is as bland and as it is obvious, Gluck staging things with all the panache of a music video from MTV still trying to figure things out in the early days. On top of that, his team’s reconstitutions of the musical numbers (a crew that included Australian pop superstar Sia) is oftentimes insufferable, the songs not so much updated as they’ve been structurally demolished to the point of being unrecognizable. As for the new numbers, the less said about them the better, not a single one standing out in a way that could be remotely construed as positive.
All of which makes me sad as there’s so much that’s praiseworthy about this adaptation and update, the fact the movie is next to unwatchable might make it the most frustrating and infuriating disappointment 2014 has had to offer. I love the color-blind casting, Wallis a delight even when everything surrounding her is anything but. I also feel that a modern day update of the story and of the music isn’t remotely a bad idea, and when the project was initially announced I was moderately intrigued by the inherent possibilities such an endeavor presented.
Yet Annie, even with a few pluses, is bad in ways that defy belief. Diaz overacts (save for one song, which is lovely, I must admit), delivering a performance that’s close to insufferable. Cannavale, whom I usually love, is just plain awful, his big duet with Diaz an out-and-out abomination. The final third is a calamitous mess that gets worse and worse as it builds to conclusion. Most of all, though, the film is nothing less than mechanical and charmless, the hard knocks so calamitous the sun never gets a chance to shine and not even the thought of a brighter tomorrow is enough to make me ever want to sit through this particular little orphan’s fairy tale adventure ever again.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)