I honestly go into every movie open-minded and hopeful. Movie critics have reputations of sitting in a dark theater with poisoned pens, sporting a sourpuss expression, but I love going to the movies as much as anyone and don’t set out to trash any movie or the filmmakers involved. I even went to “Gigli” on opening day, hoping it wasn’t as bad as I’d heard and that perhaps I’d see something my colleagues missed (my good will wasn’t rewarded). Having said all that, I should mention that being a film critic is something like being a reporter…in this case, the reporter of a spectacular accident.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I wound up seeing the 2014 remake of “Annie”. I had honestly planned on skipping it, since the groan-worthy trailer felt more like a warning than an effective sales tool. If ever there was a recent film that provided a summary of all the things that wrong in film and pop culture at this point in time, “Annie” is the one.
This modern day musical finds Little Orphan Annie (now played by Quvenzhane Wallis) stuck in an orphanage run by Miss Hannigan (a bizarrely miscast Cameron Diaz). The political aspirations of Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, playing Daddy Warbucks) coincide with Annie’s search for her parents. Annie and Stacks exploit one another (he appears to be a humanitarian by taking her in, she relishes his wealthy lifestyle) and eventually create a parental bond. Well, that’s the story, though no one here seems to believe in it.
Surface level objections turn out to be founded: what is the point of updating a story that is so clearly a period piece? Why remake the perfectly good and still enjoyable 1982 musical, made by no less than John Huston? Who in the world thought Will Gluck, the director of “Friends With Benefits,” was the right guy to helm a musical?
Quvenzhane Wallis has a winning smile but this is a sitcom-ready performance. The natural, intuitive qualities of her Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” turn have been scrubbed clean. Wallis appears self aware and ready to pause for the laugh lines. We know she can carry a movie, just not this one.
Everyone else embarrasses themselves, particularly Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and Diaz, who’s been bizarrely miscast as Miss Hannigan. Diaz can be charming in even a bad comedy but here, she gives a painfully amateurish, high school-level performance. The last time a high-profile movie star was this fascinatingly bad, it was John Travolta in “Battlefield: Earth.”
Foxx has the comedic and acting chops to pull this off but he’s in an unwinnable situation. As with his supporting turn in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” he isn’t given enough to do and is thoroughly ill used.
There are weird touches throughout, like a number where Annie appears to be hallucinating that New York is full of happy families, or a similar number with Miss Hannigan imagining children standing in for her furniture. There’s also Byrne’s confessions to Annie, intended as unguarded rapport, that come across like mini-breakdowns. Then there’s all the scenes taking place in helicopters (Gluck can’t stage a song and dance but sure likes filming movie stars in helicopters!). More so than the importance of finding a family unit, the message of the movie is just how important it is to go viral, control your media image, and posses every high tech toy imaginable.
I was hoping to avoid talking about the music, but that’s impossible when the movie itself is a musical. Simply put, “Annie” is a disaster. Even though Jay-Z and Will Smith are among the producers, the updates of the classic show tunes are rotten. Everyone sounds overly auto-tuned, the songs seem tailor made for Britney Spears and Radio Disney-ready. Foxx is the only strong singer in the cast. Yet, even his numbers sound like lesser tracks from one of his albums. Gluck’s direction is equally limp, with the choreography consisting mostly of actors running in a circle and waving their arms. Most cheerleader pep rallies have better choreography
As far as 21st century musicals go, this is so bad, in ways downright surreal, it matches “From Justin to Kelly: The American Idol Movie.” I saw that one on opening day, too, though I feel foolish admitting that in print.