THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE It's easy to appreciate what Jonathan Demme was trying to do with this remake of Charade without actually enjoying any part of it. Stanley Donen's effervescent effort from 1963 isn't exactly a classic, but with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn breezing through an engaging mystery-romance set in Paris, it's awfully enjoyable stuff. Demme probably figured a straight retelling simply couldn't compete, so he used the occasion as an opportunity to simultaneously pay homage to the French New Wave of the 60s, get back to the hipster style of filmmaking he employed in Something Wild and Married to the Mob, and hand his Beloved star Thandie Newton a potential star-making role. His ambition should be applauded but his creation should be avoided, as the truth about Charlie is that it's a brazenly misguided project. Full of schizophrenic edits that could leave a viewer with a permanent case of the shakes, shot in a frequently warped style that makes most characters appear about as misshapen as a balloon figure in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and full of maddening asides and non sequiturs, this yarn about a widow pursued by various shady characters who were all involved with her late husband never locates an appropriate wavelength. (It's a bad sign when preview audiences sit stone-faced through the lighter passages and giggle during the supposedly serious moments.) Newton acquits herself well enough, but Mark Wahlberg, in Grant's old role of the mysterious suitor, seems more a schoolboy than a sophisticate. 1/2
BROWN SUGAR As far as I'm concerned, Brown Sugar is nothing if not aptly titled, seeing as how my review for director Rick Famuyiwa's previous film, 1999's The Wood, dismissed it as "a movie so light and sugary that it could easily be mistaken for an artificial sweetener." His follow-up feature is equally as saccharine, a predictable romantic comedy about two lifelong best friends, music business executive Dre (Taye Diggs) and music magazine editor Sidney (Sanaa Lathan), who spend the entire movie fighting the fact that they're meant for each other. Or at least that's what Famuyiwa would have us believe, but Lathan (so terrific in Love & Basketball) and Diggs (so bland in just about everything) are never able to convince us that their characters are truly meant to be together. What's more, the movie's whole point is that these two are forever linked through their love of hip-hop, but despite the obligatory music biz cameos and lots of lip service from the leading characters, hip-hop rarely comes alive as its own fire-breathing entity in this picture, meaning that Dre and Sidney might as well be joined together by a mutual love of pro wrestling, Alan Rudolph flicks or Pokemon trading cards. Rapper Mos Def, memorable in a small role in Monster's Ball, effortlessly steals this film in the key supporting role of a wisecracking hip-hop musician whose integrity won't allow him to sell out as an artist.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE After the grandiosity of both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson works on a decidedly smaller scale with Punch-Drunk Love. Yet while his canvas (and running time) may be significantly lessened, his imagination runs unfettered (indeed, he earned the Best Director prize at Cannes this year), resulting in a romantic comedy that operates by the rules of its own self-contained universe. Adam Sandler, stretching about as far here as Jim Carrey did in The Truman Show (in other words, both comedians didn't reinvent their screen personas as much as they simply toned down the expected schtick), delivers an interestingly off-center performance as Barry Egan, a toilet-plunger business owner whose lifelong mental abuse at the hands of his six sisters would seem to go a long way toward explaining his delicate emotional state and his social ineptitude. Driven by his loneliness, Barry finally elects to call a phone sex service, a decision he regrets once he starts getting harassed by members of this shady outfit. And things potentially get even more complicated once he finds himself attracted to one of his sisters' co-workers (Emily Watson), though the love of this good woman might be just what he needs to pull him out of his disturbed state. Anderson, who packed the Boogie Nights soundtrack with 70s hits and the Magnolia one with haunting Aimee Mann tunes, uses Shelley Duvall's rendition of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me" (from the Popeye score) as the centerpiece song here, just one tip-off to this film's radical, off-the-wall approach. Sandler's character, an insecure introvert prone to destructive outbursts, isn't exactly cut from the Cary Grant mold, and if the film fails to use its exemplary supporting players (Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman) to their fullest potential, it still scores points for displaying how the redemptive power of love could transform even a seeming lost cause like Barry Egan.