Monday, December 1, 2014

Will Gluck Goes 2-2 With His Problematic Rendition Of Annie

The Good: Decent performances, Good (enough) story
The Bad: Direction/editing, Character types
The Basics: Annie is an ill-executed modernized version of the classic orphan story.

I am a fan of the works of Will Gluck. Gluck directed two films that get shown quite a lot around my household to visitors - Easy A (reviewed here!) and Friends With Benefits (reviewed here!). Gluck is a competent, entertaining writer-director who has something to say with his films and is already garnering a loyal cadre of actors who eagerly appear in his films, even as cameos. But until the Olive Bridge logo came up on Annie, I had no idea that Gluck was affiliated with the new film, which has been plugged at a ton of films I’ve seen this year. Olive Bridge is a reference to his protagonist from Easy A and was the name of the headhunting agency Mila Kunis’s character worked for in Friends With Benefits, so when the Olive Bridge logo came up, I was suddenly excited about a film that I otherwise had no real interest in seeing.

That excitement did not last long and, unfortunately, Will Gluck and/or the editor of Annie, Tia Nolan, are to blame. Annie is one of the rare films where the assembly of the film robs the viewer of much of the enjoyment of watching it. Will Gluck’s rendition of Annie is an obvious attempt for Gluck to get what he has long-deserved; mainstream recognition and a legitimate blockbuster. The near-Christmas release is a family film that is designed to compete against the final The Hobbit film by drawing younger audiences and black audiences (who have not, traditionally, been driving up the grosses on the Middle Earth movies) to the theaters the same weekend. But the Jamie Foxx/Cameron Diaz vehicle, which follows Gluck’s pattern of mocking the style of film he is presenting (in this case, musical), is put together in a way that does not allow any of the performers to truly showcase their talents, nor give the audience moments of catharsis for the character’s reactions.

Annie tells the familiar story of an orphaned girl – in this case, a ten year-old in foster care – who is taken in by a rich benefactor. Annie lives with four other girls in the home of Hannigan, an alcoholic who takes in foster girls just for the $157 the State pays her a month. Will Stacks is the CEO of Stacks Mobile, a cell phone company that is built upon the precedent of never dropping a call (which he delivers upon by hiding cell phone “towers” in plain sight on buildings all around New York City). Stacks has been encouraged by his right-hand man, Guy, to run for Mayor of New York City, but his campaign gets off to a rough start when his attempt to feed the homeless results in a viral video of him spitting out mashed potatoes at a homeless man. One day, when Annie is trying to protect a dog from two hooligans who are harassing it, Stacks rescues Annie from getting hit by a car. The resulting viral video gives Stacks a bump in the polls.

Guy recommends that Stacks take Annie in to help him win the race against Mayor Harold Gray. After a lunch meeting, Annie agrees to help Stacks (Hannigan was going to kick her out anyway after the social worker visited and Annie extorted her for a trip to the library). While Stacks’s assistant, Grace, has reservations about using Annie, she begins to bond with Annie. As the campaign goes on, Guy sees the only way to win the race is by jettisoning Annie after her part leads to a plateau within striking distance of Gray. Guy conspires with Hannigan to have Annie’s “parents” find her, but Annie feels like she has finally found her family and when she learns the truth, she assumes that Stacks never truly loved her or wanted her for his family.

Annie is a musical that attempts to exist in the real-world and it exists there in a murky, troubling, way. Initially, it is unclear how the film will tread; Annie’s first song is a distraction for a school assignment. But, she and her musical foster-sisters are called out by Hannigan when they sing while they clean. So, this is supposed to be the real world where it is very much an anomaly when people break into song and dance routines. Gluck manages to pull off the narrative aspect of the songs popping up well-enough (Annie often sings to herself or sings publicly to Stacks’s crowd), until late in the film. Hannigan and (especially) Guy are not creative people, so when they break into song (even if Hannigan acknowledges it) it just does not work. Equally troubling is the helicopter ride that results in Annie and Stacks singing to one another in which Annie does a little dance move before it is even clear they are singing!

But the bulk of the problem with the musical aspect of this incarnation of Annie is in the directing or editing. My affection for the works of Will Gluck, which often have moments that involve song/dance/decent cutting that has a visual rhythm to the scenes, makes me want to blame editor Tia Nolan (though Gluck, presumably, signed off on her editing). From the second song (“Hard Knocks Life”) on, the songs are almost universally cut in such a way that the singing and dancing of the subjects of the scenes is not well-showcased. For example, in “Hard Knocks Life,” the foster girls are tossing plates to one another in rhythm. The shots are cut in such a way that the rhythm is not established or maintained long enough to be enjoyable. In other words, by the time a plate is caught or thrown, the shot changes angle so it has an assembled look that does not showcase the talents of those putting a rhythm to the exchange. The best analogy for this would be a stunt fighter whose stunts were cut so that one sees them about to take a hit, then falling, then getting up (i.e. not having the hit appear to connect, nor have them hitting the ground, etc.). That type of gap does not allow one to appreciate the dance moves, scope or simple sense of motion of the big song and dance numbers throughout the film.

At least as troubling is how Gluck and Nolan rob the film of the big emotional moment for Stacks. At a museum fundraiser, Stacks uses Annie as a prop and when she sings to his crowd of potential donor, Stacks realizes that Annie has grown attached to him and that she is emotionally invested in the potential future he offered her. The only way viewers know what Stacks is going through is by the performance of Jamie Foxx. Foxx watches Quvenzhane Wallis’s Annie and he undergoes an emotional transformation without a word, only with subtle changes to his facial expression. The problem here is that the scene is cut in such a way that the viewer is not treated to the full transformation. The camera does not stay on Foxx’s face long enough for him to make the emotional statement he intends. This is sloppy and undermines the impact of the entire scene.

The song and dance numbers are further diminished by conceits that make no sense in a real world where people in the scenes are breaking into song and dance. Most notably, in one song where Cameron Diaz’s Hannigan is singing on her own, she is clearly accompanied by back-up singers and production elements that change her vocal quality. Of course, Diaz’s entire character is out-of-place in a modern adaptation of Annie. Hannigan as rendered in this version of Annie is a cruel has-been (more accurately, would-have-been – she got fired before actually dancing with C&C Music Factory) who is using the foster children for the monetary stipend they provide. But this version of Hannigan does not ring true in our modern world. Hannigan makes sense if she has a vice – to go dark, if she had been a drug abuser –, a goal (she needed the money to better herself, like by going to college or funding a small business, which could have been a cool twist if she was essentially using foster children as slave labor), or was just lazy (she is far too actively angry to be truly lazy or credibly as alcoholic as the characters around her claim). Instead, Hannigan seems more like an anachronism than a truly vital or viable character.

That said, Annie gives Rose Byrne a high point to end the year on. Byrne exploded to prominence this year with her role in Neighbors (reviewed here!) and Annie showcases a wider range of her talents. She sings and dances well (though her big song with Wallis wherein she is showing the girl Stacks’s penthouse apartment is notably robbed of flow and continuity of scope) and she provides a human connection that allows the viewer to believe that Annie might be happy with Stacks for more than just materialistic reasons.

Foxx and Wallis are fine in their roles of Will Stacks and Annie, though neither is given the chance to mine very deep for their characters. Foxx’s Stacks is unremarkable and seems to have less ambition than Bobby Canavale’s Guy. Annie is presented by Wallis with such resilience that Hannigan’s threat that she’ll end up in a group home does not seem like it would set her back and that the character’s literacy issue that comes up late in the film seems entirely unrealistic; she is smart, sassy and driven – how she has never sought out someone to help her read seems unrealistic. Cameron Diaz is over-the-top as Hannigan. Both David Zayas and Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje are welcome additions to the cast, but are placed in fairly understated roles.

Ultimately, Annie is a film that suffers because its well-established, oft-rendered story means that the writer-directors of the project have to rely upon twists to the known and/or style to sell the new rendition. But Will Gluck’s Annie is put together in such a way that its stylistic flairs fall short and the film’s full impact can be achieved simply through watching the trailer.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Seventh Son
Inherent Vice
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
10,000 Days
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Mule
Hit By Lightning
Stonehearst Asylum


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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