Nouvelle Vague

'The Truth About Charlie' appears inconclusive

After the final scene of Jonathan Demme's latest, my companion and I stuck around to giggle through the end credits. Who knew the nightclub singer was Anna Karina, the French New Wave star? Or that Agnès Varda, French filmmaker and wife of the late director Jacques Demy, had a cameo role? Then we ogled the 39 song listings--everything from Sparklehorse to Les Négresses Vertes, from Manu Chao to the Feelies. "I wouldn't mind having the soundtrack," said my friend. "No kidding," I answered. We left the theater and had walked nearly to the car before she exclaimed, "What the hell was that about?" I laughed. "No kidding."

The Truth About Charlie updates Charade, the slightly droll Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn vehicle from 1963. Demme reportedly figured it wasn't one of those beloved films that people would scream about having been tampered with, and he's right: The sketchy murder mystery remains entertaining thanks only to the combined charisma of Hepburn and Grant. Unfortunately, Demme's remake holds onto the plot and loses the charisma. Then it detours so far into New Wave homage that the gun-happy denouement feels inflated, if not inexplicable.

Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) runs into Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) on vacation in Martinique, where she is deciding to divorce Charlie (Stephen Dillane). Upon her return to Paris, Regina discovers that her husband has been murdered, and, worse, that he has sold every possession they shared in their swank apartment. A heavy-lidded Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson) interrogates Regina as a suspect--then hands over what's left of Charlie's things. Regina returns to her barren apartment. Joshua Peters shows up. Regina allows Joshua to find her a room in his hotel.

Something mild: Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg in 'The Truth About Charlie'
Universal Studios
Something mild: Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg in 'The Truth About Charlie'

Stop! When your husband has just been murdered, do you follow a stranger to his hotel? Maybe if it's 1963, and he's Cary Grant, and the mood is farcical. But Demme is going for a sort of hallucinogenic realism, and this artless Regina looks stupid rather than amorous. Especially because Wahlberg, aiming for deep, achieves only vague--and not of the nouvelle variety. (The poor boy's beret set off snickers all around the theater.) I blame Demme (and the costume designer): Joshua is so ill-defined that Wahlberg ends up playing a PG version of a Boston B-boy--which is to say he's playing Matt Damon, which is like playing nothing.

The supporting characters have much more to gnaw on. Besides the sultry commandant, a hard-ass band of outsiders (Lisa Gay Hamilton, Korean comedian Joong-Hoon Park, and Ted "Jame Gumb" Levine) is seeking contraband diamonds stolen by Charlie. An American bureaucrat (Tim Robbins, doing his best compassionate conservative) is tracking the same jewels. According to the press kit, Demme "cast each role as if it were a lead." Certainly the characters are eye-catching. But each actor appears to be playing in a different movie: Boisson in some stylish noir (Alphaville?), Park in a loss-of-innocence war saga (Bullet in the Head?), Levine in a psych-ward comedy (National Lampoon's Girl Interrupted?).

The trouble with Charlie is that it's built of set pieces, many of which refer to other movies. Depending on the movie referred to and the viewer's familiarity with it, these scenes are either ripe with borrowed emotion, full of obscure portent, or completely affectless. In any case, the tone darts around like a squirrel on a freeway. The reenactment of The Third Man's Ferris wheel rendezvous borrows everything and adds triteness. Anna Karina's song sequence at a tango club is as vivid and elusive as a classic Fellini scene, but to what end? The jumpy, multi-culti Parisian street scenes, fueled by musical mutations out of former French colonies, update François Truffaut with affection and wit. Singer Charles Aznavour wanders in from Shoot the Piano Player. Newton sports a white raincoat like Karina's in Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. Miss Moneypenny trips in from the Bond films.

What does it add up to? I'm not sure. A decent collection of music videos? I remind myself that this director competently, at times brilliantly, steered The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved, Philadelphia, and Married to the Mob. Demme has stated, for the record, that he was fed up with formal and aching for playful; he started out, after all, making pulp movies with Roger Corman. But playful isn't the word for this movie, despite cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's sideways takes on the Eiffel Tower. Rather, it feels discordant, confusedly sensual, and splintered--at once numb and, like Regina, apt to break illogically into tears.

The Truth About Charlie is dedicated to Ted Demme, Jonathan's nephew, whose heart failed last January. It has been in post-production for a year: more than enough time to bring the fragments of this filmic valentine together, if the filmmaker had wanted them joined.

 
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