Seeing Stanley Donen’s 1963 Hitchcock-like thriller, Charade, for the first time is one of those rare, treasured childhood memories that has stood the test of time. I loved the film when I was 9 and I love it just as much at 48 (though for different reasons, I suspect).
So I went to Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie with a chip on my shoulder at least as big as the Eiffel Tower. I was sure I would hate this ill-advised attempt at remaking the best Hitchcock picture that Hitchcock never made. The problem was that the movie wouldn’t let me hate it.
Oh sure, it’s not the same as Charade — which is a good thing, since it could only be a second-rate copy. And, yes, Mark Wahlberg is no Cary Grant. Fortunately, the film doesn’t ask him to be. That’s also a good thing, since Wahlberg has quite enough trouble being Wahlberg. In fact, if I have any single complaint about The Truth About Charlie, it’s him — he’s just unsuited, even to the revamped role. Wahlberg has two basic expressions: glum and glummer. But the rest of the film — and the brilliant casting of Thandie Newton — makes up for him.
The Truth About Charlie is the most playful film to come from Demme in a long, long time. It’s also the first of his films I’ve seen that has the personality that once made his work seem so fresh, ever since 1988’s Married to the Mob. In fact, it’s probably no accident that the ending sequence of The Truth About Charlie borrows a device from that film.
Regardless of how one feels about The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, this is Jonathan Demme back in his old form; and I, for one, am glad to have him there.
Rather than simply remake Charade — though the new film closely adheres to its plot in every significant detail — Demme has made a joyous celebration of the French New Wave films that were at their peak at the time the original film was made. Like those films, The Truth About Charlie has no use for camera tripods or elaborate tracking setups, utilizing a handheld camera throughout. (According to the production notes, the immobile shots were accomplished by resting the camera on a deflated soccer ball.) This truly does give the film that sense of freedom of the best of the movies of Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, DeBroca and, yes, Agnes Varda, who actually appears in The Truth About Charlie — along with such other New Wave figures as Anna Karina and Charles Aznavour. And despite the fact that the film trades on these figures and even includes such truly highbrow and esoteric in-jokes as a hotel named after Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinematheque Francais, it’s anything but stuffy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
Any movie that boasts the services of the original script’s author, Peter Stone, yet credits him as Peter Joshua, noting in the production details that he’s “pleased to share the same name as a prominent character in the 1963 film, Charade,” is clearly out to have fun — and be fun. But it The Truth About Charlie is a movie that probably works better and seems richer the more familiar you are with its sources.
Donen’s film may have been the perfect imitation-Hitchcock picture, but it’s Demme’s film that affords us the perfect — and deliberately never explained — “Maguffin” (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is everyone is after in a film). The setup is the same as the old film — Charles Lambert (Stephen Dillane) is murdered and a gang of his former crooked associates go after his widow, Regina (Thandie Newton), thinking she knows the whereabouts of his missing fortune, to which they believe themselves entitled.
In addition to turning the proceedings into a free-spirited homage to the New Wave, Demme has decided to create a number of riffs on the original material — occasionally even improving on it. A sequence in the original where Audrey Hepburn is accosted by the crooks at a nightclub is delightfully reworked as a stylish tango sequence where characters constantly change partners and get one-line threats or pieces of information. It’s very nearly brilliant — even though its editing owes more than a little to the “Roxanne Tango” from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! — and would be wholly brilliant if Demme hadn’t, for some strange reason, cut it short. Even abbreviated, it’s a much more dynamic scene than its 1963 counterpart.
There are a lot of similar moments in The Truth About Charlie — more than enough to ensure one of the best times at the movies you’re likely to have anytime soon.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke