Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) was one of those star powered, foreign scenery thrillers, where the audience knew they were watching entertainment; it was a big, colorful production with universally loved actors (Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn) and a story whose engaging twists and turns never threatened the certainty of a happy ending. It’s one of those movies where everyone is constantly revealing that they’re secret agents and have another “real” name, the kind of movie that the audience knows to be merely fun stagecraft; the kind of movie that was not intended to be taken seriously then and cannot be made serious now, certainly not as a remake.
And certainly not by American cinema’s anti-stylist Jonathan Demme. I’m told he’s an acclaimed filmmaker. When I ask why, I get diffident mumbles. The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Beloved do not convince me that he’s anything other than a freelance hack who’s merely encountered fortuitous screenplays and actors; a reliable if uninspired helmsman for fair-to-middling movies, like a pre-Wonder Boys Curtis Hanson. When directors like these get lucky and are trumped up as auteurs, they’re liable to get ideas. The Truth About Charlie is, unfortunately, just such an idea: “Let’s take an old star-studded Hollywood foreign-location thriller like Charade and remake it as a French New Wave kind of thing (you know, all shaky handheld shots, tilt the camera a lot). We’ll use some of this fashionable new digital video, a lot of montage scenes of Paris, a lot of French pop music in the soundtrack. I smell a hit.”
The result is a horrendous clash of content and form that, by the end, becomes an outright embarrassment. It begins with the eponymous Charlie’s quaint murder on a charming French passenger train. His new wife Regina (Thandie Newton) returns to their posh Paris apartment (from the Riviera, of course) to find it ransacked. The Paris police and the humorously humorless American agent Bartholemew (Tim Robbins) inform her that her husband held a dozen different identities and screwed some dangerous people for $6 million. No, that’s not billion. In an age where even the $150 million stolen by the Ocean’s Eleven gang seems like small potatoes, $6 million is a ridiculously minor amount to fuel the plot of an international thriller. Yet everything about this movie is minor. Regina becomes involved with hunky new friend Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg), who may be double-crossing her. No one could live up to Cary Grant (who played the analogous role in Charade), and Wahlberg turns in a strangely flat performance, awkward and timid when suavity and assurance are called for. The audience zones out from here onwards, bored by the unending plot twists and identity changes we can see coming, faintly nauseated by Demme’s unsteady camera, occasionally spurred alert by an unexpectedly good Europop tune. It’s all a shame. Thandie Newton is quite wonderful, but her character is denied an adequate background. What can characters really do when they’re made to spout theatrical, 1960’s Hollywood dialogue while being filmed in Nouveau Vague manner, a style formulated in deliberate reaction against the film culture that produced Charade? I bet Demme thinks that was clever, but style and substance here are so at antipodes that it would take a far more gifted filmmaker to make it work at all, let alone to craft any kind of a significant achievement out of it.
I have always found Demme stylistically impaired; this is most evident here in flashback scenes of a military operation in Bosnia. Everything is wrong about scenes like these: not only are they misplaced plot-filler, but they are also poorly filmed and fake-looking. But this only comes at the end of a long thriller that fails at every turn to thrill, eventually reaching such depths that closing your eyes and listening to the Europop soundtrack and the occasional cameos by cabaret legend Charles Aznavour is far preferable to watching anything that could be happening on the screen.
Why should this be? Demme is remaking a large studio film with a large studio budget. Is this intended as an introduction to French New Wave filmmaking for us ignorant Yankees? Do these charming but now kitschy old Technicolor intrigues cry out at all for a post-modern reworking? Can Mark Wahlberg replace Cary Grant? Does anyone care about identity-shifting diamond thieves scurrying around Paris? I have no idea why this movie was made. Even Red Dragon wears its crass assurance of profitability on its sleeve, but the purpose of The Truth About Charlie cannot be discerned at all.