ANNIE Review: No Sun Comes Out for This Little Orphan
As I hold true in the cases of films that are byproducts of books, comic books, television shows, video games, board games, and other movies, I hold true that a film ought to stand on its own merits if it is the adaptation of a stage play. Writer/director Will Gluck‘s Annie is no exception. I do not have any familiarity with the stage production (nor its 1982 theatrical film adaptation, nor its 1999 TV film adaptation), aside from reputation and some pop-culture references. Having now seen this latest version, I might want to look into those older incarnations.
In this year’s entry, the little orphan known as Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) isn’t an orphan at all, but a foster child who, along with several other girls, is under the care of the cruel Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Despite her bleak situation, Annie holds out hope that her birth parents will someday return for her. As it so often does, fate intervenes when Annie crosses paths with Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx).
Stacks is a billionaire businessman campaigning to be mayor of New York. Despite help from top political strategists (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale), his campaign is flailing because of his inability to connect with the people of the city. But when he saves Annie from being hit by a car and that footage goes viral, his poll numbers get a boost. He decides to assume temporary guardianship of the foster girl to help his campaign, but unexpected conflict – and unexpected emotions – complicate things.
It’s difficult to oversell the combined might of the talent assembled for Annie. The cast includes an Oscar winner (Foxx, Best Actor, 2004’s Ray); history’s youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee (Wallis, 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild); history’s highest-grossing actress (Diaz, who presently stands atop all actresses, and 14th overall, with $2.946 billion); one of the hottest comedy actresses in town (Byrne, she of 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2014’s Neighbors); and one of the hottest all-around actors in town (Cannavale, whose recent credits include 2014’s Chef, 2013’s Blue Jasmine, and 2013’s Lovelace). This is a well-balanced cast, each member of which brings strengths to the film that should make it successful.
And yet it fails so tragically.
This film is a musical, but there isn’t a memorable number to be heard. Oh sure, the big songs are included (big even for those unfamiliar with the material), but they are wholly unremarkable. For “It’s The Hard-Knock Life,” the foster girls are reduced to being kids saddled with household chores while Diaz barks orders. As for “Tomorrow,” the money number if there ever was one, it’s nothing more than Wallis roaming the streets of her neighborhood, singing the song and seeing the world through an optimistic spectrum. If you extract that song from the film, the segment could be a commercial for the latest hybrid car.
The rest of them – including a song sung in a helicopter flying over NYC – are utterly forgettable and shot and edited so heavy-handedly, it’s uncertain if the cast even knew each entire dance routine from beginning to end. This is not your grandfather’s musical. This is not an ‘80s music video. This isn’t even an episode of Glee. It’s puzzling why Gluck was chosen to direct (and such a high-profile release), as nothing in his resumé suggests he can block and direct a dance number. He proves here he can’t.
That leaves the rest of the film, and it’s really no better than any musical number that interrupts it. Everyone in the cast – with the exception of Foxx, who I found to be good – falls into this grey area where they are too over-the-top to be taken seriously, yet not so over as to be camp. Diaz is the worst offender here, with everyone else close behind. As for Wallis, her over-the-topness comes from trying so hard to be cute that she speeds past sweet and plows straight into saccharine.
Close the movie with a ridiculous and accelerated resolution, a contrived romance, and a dreadful car chase, and that’s a wrap. To judge it on its own merit? It isn’t good. To make a comparison to the past? Again, I’m not familiar enough with the source material to say, but something – anything – from the past must surely be better than this.
Annie reeks of one of those vanity projects where a bunch of rich and famous people who are good at certain things thought they could translate their knowledge of those things into a good movie. In this case, two of the film’s rich and famous producers – Jay-Z and Will Smith – certainly know a thing or two about music. But knowing music and the music business, even in the context of also knowing movies and the movie business (in Smith’s case), does not make someone an expert on movie musicals. This film is hard knock proof of that.