The Truth About Charlie

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE

4/10

USA 2002 : Jonathan DEMME : 104 mins

The truth about The Truth About Charlie is that – unfortunately – it’s a bit of a mess. There’s no shortage of talented people involved, and lead actress Thandie Newton does her charming best to keep things watchable – backed up by a terrifically droll turn from Tim Robbins, having almost as much fun as he did back the even ropier AntiTrust. Director Demme, meanwhile, has done many fine movies in his time, and his habitual cinematographer Tak Fujimoto is on top form. But Demme, for all his strengths, isn’t one of those directors with a strong personal style of film-making – he’s therefore dependent on the quality of his project’s scripts. And this is where The Truth About Charlie falls down. Two pairs of screenwriters are credited: Demme & Steve Schmidt, Jessica Bendinger & Peter Joshua. The presence of so many ‘cooks’ is a bad sign in itself, and add in the fact that they’re adapting the work of yet another writer – Peter Stone, who wrote the 1963 film Charade of which this is a remake – and it all adds up to a recipe for trouble.

The early stretches aren’t too bad: Regina Lambert (Newton) arrives back from holiday to find her Paris flat stripped bare. The police reveal that Regina’s husband Charlie (Dillane) has recently been found murdered – and it turns out that, rather than the art dealer Regina thought she’d married, Charlie was in fact a mercenary-turned-crook. Now his battle-hardened former comrades-in-arms are desperate to get their hands on some missing loot, and as Regina seeks assistance from a flinty but sympathetic cop (Christine Boisson), a smooth-talking US-government agent (Robbins) and Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg), a nicey-nicey American who just keeps turning up when Regina needs him most. But who can be trusted? Is anyone who they seem?

The answers, of course, are ‘nobody’ and ‘no’ respectively – as will be immediately apparent to anyone who’s seen any film in this genre before, thus preventing any proper build-up of tension. Paradoxically, however, Demme’s approach presumes that his audiences are unusually cine-literate – he takes a fondly-remembered semi-classic (the original featured Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant) and filters it through the style of the French Nouvelle Vague, specifically the works of Francois Truffaut. Iconic period figures like Charles Aznavour, Anna Karina and director Agnes Varda appear (briefly) on screen, and Demme gets to indulge himself by pastiching the freewheeling directorial style of the era – which means the camera wobbles and swirls around the characters, with arbitrary shifts between conventional celluloid and high-definition DV.

But rather than proceeding organically out of the material, as in the Nouvelle Vague itself, Demme’s tricks come across like stylistic affectations: he’s like an old dog who sets out to teach himself some new tricks, and it just doesn’t work. What he’s after is an experimental, jazzy looseness – but that kind of esprit can’t be simulated or forced: it must be instinctive and free-flowing. And when push comes to shove, Demme reverts to his natural Hollywoodish approach, resorting to standard-issue music and camerawork as the plot convolutes towards an increasingly incoherent climax. These latter stages show distinct signs of either (A) excessive rewriting, (B) excessive post-producting cutting and reorganisation or, more likely, (C) both.

The parallels with Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief are many: both are French-set remakes of esteemed originals, both feature strong central performances (Nolte/Newton) and at least one top-value support turn (Fiennes/Robbins), but become frustratingly bogged-down in plot twists, as the directors get carried away with their ham-fisted attempts at visual flair. Jordan, at least, gives his cast plenty to work with – Demme, badly underuses Joong-Hoon Park (the psycho from South Korean bloodbath Say Yes), who’s restricted to lurking around in street scenes looking sinister, while Lisa Gay Hamilton’s ballsy soldier character Lola is especially ill-served by the plot’s spiralling confusions.

And how annoying to see the likes of Karina and Aznavour relegated to little more than bit-parts – especially when we get so much of the doughy Wahlberg (much closer to Jean-Paul Belmondo than Grant, who was 60 when he made Charade. It’s no fault of Newton’s, but the pair strike very few sparks together – a fairly crucial problem in what’s supposed to be a romantic-comic-thriller. It’s very unlikely that Truffaut himself, who knew a thing or two about casting and directing movie romances, would have approved – when Demme awkwardly closes on a shot of his hero’s grave, it’s perhaps just as well the raucous score is filling up the soundtrack: the sound of subterranean churning might otherwise have been all too audible.

12th May, 2003
(seen same day: Warner Village, York)

by Neil Young