REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
If you go to the modernized film version of “Annie,” you are probably expecting the musical’s lead actress to be the adorable little African-American girl who you’ve seen in all the trailers and posters.
So, you might be a tad confused by the film’s opening scene. At the front of a contemporary New York City classroom, a young white girl with curly red hair and freckles is giving her assigned report on President William Henry Harrison. If you remember your American history, he was the hero of the Battle of Tippercanoe and became our ninth president. Dying only thirty-two days after being inaugurated, his truncated term was the shortest of any chief executive. At the end of her presentation, the young girl breaks into an impromptu tap dance.
Leaping lizards — where is Quvenzhané Wallis, the film’s putative star? What happened to her?
This opening scene is actually a sly homage to the original syndicated comic strip by Harold Gray as well as the Broadway musical and cinematic adaptations. In each of them, the protagonist had a trademark red mop top and a speckled complexion.
Not to worry — when the teacher calls out Annie’s name, it is Quvenzhané Wallis who confidently strides to the head of the class. Her topic is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In stark contrast to Harrison, he was elected to office four times and was the longest serving occupant of the oval office. Annie extols Roosevelt, singling out the W.P.A. for particular praise. This is quite ironic since Harold Gray, the character’s creator, vehemently opposed F.D.R. and regularly used his comic strip to bash New Deal policies.
This time around, Annie is no longer an orphan. She is one of five female foster children, crammed into a single bedroom inside of a Harlem Brownstone. It’s operated by Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). She is running the foster home strictly for the money and harbors no affection for the tykes in her charge. She routinely assails Annie with harsh epithets, like “rat” and “monster.”
Don’t expect to see Daddy Warbucks, the bald-domed industrialist character. In his place, we have Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), who has made his fortune as the owner of a high-tech communications company. He likes to brag that his cell phones have never dropped a call.
Now, Stacks has become a dark horse candidate for mayor of Gotham. He’s out on the hustings, accompanied by his loyal assistant, Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne); unprincipled campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Canavale); and driver/bodyguard, Nash (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Unfortunately, Stacks is a germophobic elitist, who has an aversion to pressing the flesh of prospective voters. He trails his rival, who just happens to share the name of the comic strip’s creator, by thirty percentage points. Things get even worse. Stack shows up at a soup kitchen, which feeds the poor. For a photo op, he reluctantly takes a bite of food and reflexively gags, spitting it out all over a nearby homeless man. Video of the event goes viral and Stacks becomes a public laughing stock.
By happenstance, Annie meets Stacks, who snatches her out of the path of an oncoming auto. Stacks’ perpetually scheming campaign manager has a brain storm. He hatches the plan of exploiting Annie for electoral advantage. She is moved into Stacks’ sprawling bachelor pad to live with him. This is supposed to transform Stacks’ public image.
Eleven-year old Quvenzhané Wallis (Oscar-nominated for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) brings the requisite spunkiness to the lead role. She can’t belt out a song, but displays a decent voice. Wallis has a reasonably pleasant chemistry with Jamie Foxx. Their duets together are enjoyable, but never quite sparkle. Unfortunately, the vibes between Foxx and Rose Byrne, whose lovelorn character is supposedly carrying a torch for her boss, are lackluster. The film is subverted by the performances of Cameron Diaz and Bobby Canavale, who offer ludicrously broad interpretations of their respective characters. Look for some fleeting cameos by Michael J. Fox, Patricia Clarkson, Ashton Kutcher, and Mila Kunis.
This latest “Annie” jettisons some of the traditional tunes by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin altogether. It tweaks the lyrics of others to eliminate Depression- era references. Instead, there are some newly composed songs, including “Opportunity.” The choreography is uninspired. The film fails to take advantage of the terpsichorean skills of Cameron Diaz. As Diaz has amply demonstrated in “The Mask” and “Charlie’s Angels,” she is an incredible dancer.
This latest adaptation offers plenty of revisionist updates, but captures little magic. Beset with cynicism, the screenplay by director/co-screenwriter, Will Gluck, and his collaborator, Aline Brosh McKenna (“We Bought a Zoo”) is beset with cynicism. It is serviceable, but nothing more. At times, the film seems on the verge of fizzling, only to be saved just in the nick of time by a musical number.
That said, there is distressingly little in the way of family-friendly fare out this holiday season. So, if you are eager to hit the multiplex for a family outing, “Annie” might be your best option by default.
“Annie” ** 1/2 PG (for some mild language and rude humor)118 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.