If nothing else, Jonathan Demme's new movie, The Truth About Charlie, demonstrates a familiar and sometimes entertaining combination of the courageous and the foolhardy --- topped off, unfortunately, with the worst sort of Hollywoodthink. Both the courage and the foolishness derive from the fact that the picture is a remake of Stanley Donen's 1963 comedy thriller Charade, which starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, supported by a cast that included Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. Surely only someone blessed not only with both talent and confidence, but also with, perhaps, more guts than brains, would attempt to recapture the airy charm of that flick. Equally surely, only someone with a traditional Hollywood mindset (perhaps pressured by the money people) would choose Mark Wahlberg as a leading man under any circumstances, let alone one in which he must toil in Grant's long shadow.
Since the script required the work of four (credited) screenwriters, including the director himself, the process of repeating the past, even given the solid foundation of a previous success, apparently presented more problems than one would imagine. However, this movie generally follows the story of Charade, adding a good deal more violence in the contemporary mode, subtracting much of the wit and fun, and framing the mixture with enough showy camera technique to make three experimental films (with a lively documentary left over). It updates the 1950s flavor of its predecessor without making much more sense of its complicated and artificial materials. And though well stocked with beatings, shootings, automobile collisions, and a sufficiency of blood, the remake retains its paradoxical lightheartedness.
Thandie Newton plays Regina Lambert, a rich young woman who returns from a vacation in Martinique to find her husband, Charles, missing; her enormous apartment totally gutted; and her bank account empty. The police, who suspect her of some complicity, inform her that her husband is dead. They also tell her that, though she believed him to be an art dealer, Charles was apparently some sort of international crook, with half a dozen aliases and as many passports. A Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins), an official from the United States embassy, then tells her that, in fact, Charlie was involved in dangerous undercover work for an organization called the Office of Defense Cooperation. The reason for his murder appears to be the several million dollars he stole from the government while on a secret mission. As it turns out, a whole batch of people --- the cops, the ODC, and a trio of thugs (Charlie's former colleagues) ---all want to get their hands on the cash, and they all believe Regina knows how to find it.
Although not at all grief stricken --- she was intending to divorce her husband --- Regina feels she must find the money, the murderer, and Charlie's real identity. The only person who believes she's innocent is Joshua Peters (Wahlberg), a helpful young man she initially met in Martinique and later, again, in Paris. The movie soon resolves itself into a series of pursuits and flights, as Regina and Joshua track down clues and escape the thugs, interrupted by fist fights and an occasional embrace. He defends her from attackers and assists her in her quest for the money and the solution to the mystery, but Joshua himself displays a disturbing, shifting identity, changing his story, his past, and his name as Regina edges closer to the truth.
Thrillers frequently revolve around the problem of identity, so the ever-changing names, the constantly adjusted history, the different explanations of Charlie's work and life all conform to the traditional patterns of the genre. Regina's solution of the mystery quite naturally brings her to an understanding of the world and herself, a process of maturation and initiation, an awareness of the shifting and ambiguous nature of reality, of how little she knows of the truth. At the same time, the movie never really takes itself seriously enough to become ponderous and lugubrious, thus retaining some of the lightness and grace of the original.
Demme maintains the notion of the ambiguity of reality, as well as a certain liveliness, through the film's remarkably dynamic cinematography. The camera never rests. It's constantly changing focus and angle, moving rapidly back and forth in conversations from tight close-up to tight close-up, providing oblique points of view or simply tilting to one side or another, soaring in the air for overhead shots, frequently circling dizzyingly around the central couple. In addition, the director varies film speed from fast to slow motion, sometimes combining the two in some jumpy panoramas, and employing the beauty of Paris for innumerable sequences of rapid and nervous montage. When he needs to underline the Parisian atmosphere or remind us that the whole fluffy business, despite appearances, is really a romantic comedy, he brings in the venerable and wonderful Charles Aznavour to sing one of his love songs.
The greatest problem in the film, not surprisingly, lies with Wahlberg, whose presence is so negligible he barely casts a shadow. Though he presumably appears in the movie in order to attract a younger audience than the one that enjoyed Cary Grant, he expresses no particular emotion, delivers his lines without a scintilla of wit, and moves with no discernible grace. Aside from the obligatory moment when he takes his shirt off to display his muscular torso, he hardly provides an appropriate match for the lovely Thandie Newton. His short, stocky body seems at its most ridiculous when he slaps on a beret, apparently to remind us that he is a suave, romantic boulevardier. The poor little guy actually looks something like a French fire hydrant.
The Truth About Charlie, starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins, Joong-Hoon Park, Ted Levine, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Christine Boisson, Stephen Dillane, Simon Abkarian, Frédérique Meininger, Charles Aznavour, Anna Karina, Magali Noël, Sakina Jaffrey, Agnes Varda, Saïan Supa Crew; based on the motion picture Charade, screenplay by Peter Stone; screenplay by Jonathan Demme, Steve Schmidt, Peter Joshua, and Jessica Bendinger. Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.