Thursday, March 29, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.13: Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie/The Manchurian Candidate

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

The Truth About Charlie Grade: 59 (B-)

Following the critical and commercial disappointment of 1998’s Beloved, Jonathan Demme took yet another extended break between films. Four years later, he turned up with The Truth About Charlie, a remake of the Stanley Donen classic Charade. If ever there were a director suited to remake Charade, it would be Demme: the original Donen film oscillates between Hitchcockian tension and screwball comedy while finding a wonderful romance between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant that fits both tones. Demme specializes in this kind of genre-mixing and subversion, and his idea to use the original Charade as a framework for a tribute to the French New Wave was a rather inspired idea. Better still were his original casting decisions: the oft-underutilized Thandie Newton in the Audrey Hepburn role and endlessly charming, charismatic Will Smith in the Cary Grant role. One problem: production on Michael Mann’s Ali went over schedule and Smith had to drop out. So who’s the replacement? Mark Wahlberg? Oh…

British woman Regina Lambert (Newton) has recently married Parisian Charlie. After a vacation in the Bahamas, she returns home with plans to divorce Charlie, only to find their apartment completely empty. The French police inform her not only that Charlie has been murdered, but that he has lied about who he really is. American agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Tim Robbins) informs her that Charlie and his former army buddies (Ted Levine, Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton) stole millions of dollars from the U.S. government. The three army buddies are now in Paris searching for the money, and they may or may not be responsible for Charlie’s death. Things get complicated as Regina falls for Joshua Peters (Wahlberg), a charming man she met on vacation who may have some secrets of his own.

The Truth About Charlie follows the plot of Charade fairly closely, so it’s strange to see that it’s so much more confusing than its predecessor. For whatever reason, Demme and fellow screenwriters (most notably Jessica Bendinger of Bring It On fame) lose track of the plot at several points. A Hitchcockian story in this vein needs a strong script with a solid through-line and a meticulously planned out plot, something The Truth About Charlie is sorely lacking. Demme has admitted in the past that he’s a less talented screenwriter than a director, but it mattered less with the films that Demme wrote in the past (Caged Heat, Fighting Mad) because they were exploitation films that didn’t require tight scripts. Here it nearly kills the film.

The romantic elements of the script are a bit stronger, but for them to work it’s essential that both of the romantic leads are up to task. Mark Wahlberg has wrongfully been marked by some as a bad actor by some. In all truth, Wahlberg is often terrific (Boogie Nights, The Departed, The Other Guys, anything he collaborated on with David O. Russell), but he needs to be cast right or he absolutely will not work. Wahlberg brings an earnestness whenever he’s miscast that’s easy to admire- he’s trying to make this work, damn it, not just phoning it in- but god help him, he’s just not the suave Cary Grant-type the part requires. As with most of his miscastings, he mostly comes off as bewildered by his surroundings.

Inadequate as Wahlberg is, however, the other two leads more than make up for him. In a role originated by Walter Matthau, Robbins makes for an amusingly banal agent with an affable squareness to him. Robbins is perfect because he doesn’t let on that anything he’s doing is funny- he’s awkward, but he’s awkward in the right way. He’s almost a parody of the likable dorks populating the sidelines and frontlines of Demme’s earlier works. Better still is Newton, an actress who rarely gets to show off the depth of her talent. Her previous collaboration with Demme in Beloved had her playing an impossible role, but The Truth About Charlie has no small task itself: she needs to be a modern Audrey Hepburn. Fortunately, Newton shows off a graceful charm worthy of her iconic predecessor; it’s another strong female role that Demme does so well (Walhberg populates the moral young man role a bit less skillfully).

The Truth About Charlie also features several of the colorful Demme side characters mostly missing from his last feature. Many of these characters threaten to take over the film at several points (would that it were so): the male and female French police officers, whose cute romance feels like a window into another charming movie; Charlie’s mother, a bitter, odd looking old woman seeking revenge for her son’s death; Levine, Hamilton and Park make for appropriate, often amusing replacements for the original Charade’s George Kennedy, James Coburn and Ned Glass. The mixed ethnicities of the criminals brings about Demme’s pronounced “One World” philosophy- even the bad guys aren’t prejudiced, and it turns out they’re not completely irredeemable after all.

Best of all are the knowing nods to the French New Wave, from casting filmmaker Agnes Varda in a bit part to Godard muse/ex-wife Anna Karina as a lounge singer to two spectacular scenes involving Shoot the Piano Player star Charles Aznavour literally showing up in the middle of a romance scene after Wahlberg puts an Aznavour CD on (it honestly has to be seen to be believed).

Where the original Charade was a classic Hollywood thriller/comedy set in Paris, Demme mostly uses The Truth About Charlie to explore his love and fascination with the French New Wave- after all, Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player made Demme realize what directing really was in the first place. Demme brings often intoxicating use of montage, differing film stocks (or at least looks), skewed perspective, and forced perspective (the best being from the “view” of Charlie’s corpse) to the fray while he explores the most bohemian sides of Paris, from the cafes to the French market. He populates the soundtrack with offbeat French pop, rock, and hip hop; even better is the Karina scene, in which the characters tango together while expressing their admiration for each other.  Yes, The Truth About Charlie is a lively, enjoyably frothy piece of filmmaking, and in some ways a return to the classic Demme moviemaking of the 80s. Pity that the damn plot has to interfere so often.

The Manchurian Candidate Grade: 77 (B+)

The Truth About Charlie received mixed notices and was a box office bomb, but Demme was in better form with his next film, another remake. Demme’s version of The Manchurian Candidate isn’t as light as The Truth About Charlie: it takes the same serious tone of Demme’s 90s projects (bearing the most similarities to The Silence of the Lambs). The film was mostly well liked, but it only made $96 million against an $80 million budget and seems to have been relegated as a footnote in Demme’s career. It’s a pity, considering how smart an update of the classic Cold War-era thriller it is. In the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, the enemy is communists abroad and within the U.S. borders. With the 2004 remake, the enemy isn’t some threat that’s invaded our capitalistic system, but rather that system run amok.

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) led a unit in Operation Desert Storm that included Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), the current candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Marco and his fellow soldiers had testified that Shaw saved their unit in an act of heroism that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The only problem: Marco doesn’t actually remember the act the way he and everyone else claimed it had happened. His testimony was compulsive. Slowly but surely Marco puts the pieces together: he and his unit were kidnapped, detained, and brainwashed by powerful members of their government connected to Manchurian Global, a corporation dabbling, among other things, in nanotechnology that can control minds. This company now has control over Shaw, who most likely will be in the White House. Now Marco has to put everything together while facing a government seeking to discredit him as mentally ill, Shaw’s disbelief of his story, and Shaw’s powerful senator-mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep).

The Manchurian Candidate has the opposite problem of The Truth About Charlie-the film’s plotting is intricately worked out and often thrilling, but Demme forsakes certain aspects of his quirky personality in favor of a somber tone that’s appropriate yet somewhat less invigorating than his earlier works. Demme’s usually peerless use of music is largely relegated to a charged opening credit sequence set to socially conscious hip-hop star Wyclef Jean’s cover of the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival protest song “Fortunate Son” (the original version was used by Demme in Melvin and Howard). Demme’s use of kitsch Americana is fairly minimal as well: there’s an interesting early scene involving Marco speaking in front of a Boy Scout Troop that has an interesting connection to how idealistic young boys aspire to something far more complicated than they realize, and conspiracy theorist Geoffrey Wright’s apartment is appropriately disheveled; but the film’s Washington, D.C. sometimes feels a bit too standard, almost as if Demme lost his personality amidst his focus on plotting and cries of social injustice.

These are minor complaints, however, in an otherwise strong thriller. Demme and regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto make good use of close-ups on the uneasy facial expressions of Washington, Wright, Schreiber, and others. The two also bring their skill with perspective shots, the best being a scene in which Washington discovers a hidden security camera, as seen from the camera’s point of view.

Demme handles the flashback scenes, in which Washington re-experiences his detainment with a fever dream intensity that plays like a more overtly nightmarish re-imagination of the surreal dream sequences in the original film. The rest of the film combines the paranoid intensity of the John Frankenheimer original with expertly-crafted Hitchcockian suspsense (we often realize what’s about to happen long before anyone else does), but Demme handles these nightmarish sequences and exploration of the dark side of technology  with eerie control and brutality not unlike that of a Kubrick film. And where the original film’s villains used hypnosis as a means to control their subjects, the villians of Demme’s version use creepy nanotechnology in body-horror that plays like a more subdued Cronenberg.

Demme’s use of colorful milieu and music might be muted, but he creates plenty of fascinating side characters worthy of his best films. There’s a diversity among the soldiers of Washington’s platoon (Jewish Schreiber, African-Americans Washington/Wright/Anthony Mackie, white men, Asians) that show Demme’s “One World” mentality extending even to the military. Demme brings memorable character actors to fill in roles both big (Wright as the paranoid ex-soldier, Vera Farmiga as the All American Girl Schreiber loves, Bruno Ganz as an associate of Washington’s) and small (Dean Stockwell as a shady executive; Charles Napier, Miguel Ferrer, and Ted Levine as army officers, Bill Irwin as a scout leader). He tips his hat towards other political artists such as director Sidney Lumet (as a pundit), producer Roger Corman (as the Secretary of State), Al Franken (as himself), and singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (as a treacherous civilian contractor).

There are three supporting actors worth singling out as particularly noteworthy: the first is creepy character actor Simon McBurney as a South African scientist employed by Manchurian Global despite his being wanted for war crimes. McBurney exudes false warmth and security as he invades the minds of decent men. Another standout is Jon Voight as a senator opposing Manchurian Global and U.S. foreign policy practices that “help create terrorists” (ironic, considering how hawkishly conservative Voight has become). Finally, there’s Kimberly Elise as Eugenie, a kind-hearted love interest to Marco. Here, Demme picks up on a theory involving a particularly strange (and unexplained) scene in the original film, and Elise makes the character’s shift wholly believable.

Washington is capable as ever as Captain Marco in a role that requires him to subvert his innate dignity for a more frantic performance (much like the original saw a less suave performance from Frank Sinatra). Marco is visibly a Denzel Washington character, but Demme and Washington quickly toss expectations to the wayside as the character starts to lose control of his situation. This is a man with a damaged soul, and he gradually becomes more paranoid and unreliable even as he tries to do right.

Schreiber is even better as Shaw in a role that subverts the average “moral young man” type Demme often puts at the center of his films. Shaw isn’t nearly as warm as those previous men- he’s cold, isolated, emotionally challenged, and hard to get along with. Yet he’s a good man who’s not afraid to differ with his mother’s more controversial policies, and he wants to do good for the little guy. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, under the control of a massive corporation.

The original film’s matriarch Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury in an Oscar-nominated role) is one of the most memorable villains in cinema history, but Meryl Streep is a more than capable actress to handle the update. With a handful of notable exceptions, Streep specializes in giving exceptional performances in mediocre to solid movies (come and get me). While The Manchurian Candidate isn’t a great movie, it’s certainly better material than she usually gets, and she gives one of the most underrated performances of her career. Eleanor Prentiss is a powerful woman with touches of Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and, according to Streep, Dick Cheney in her personality. She’s cynical (she repudiates her son’s “one world” philosophy), she’s willing to resort to “political thuggery” in order to get what she wants, and, it turns out, far more insidious methods to gain absolute power. It’s not much of a surprise that Prentiss is connected directly to both Manchurian Global and their control of her son- it’s a warped plan that serves her creepily Oedipal relationship with her son.

Demme doesn’t specify which parties Prentiss and Shaw play for, and while one might assume that a leftist like Demme sides with the Democrats, The Manchurian Candidate takes a look past party lines. Demme has no illusions that only one party is dominated by corporate stooges willing to sell their souls for the political game. There are extensive referenes to the War on Terror and the Haliburton-like company Manchurian Global, but it’s a problem that extends to both political parties in a system that’s been fatally compromised for decades. The film’s pitch-black view of the American political system goes until the very last line: “there’s always casualties in war, sir.” Yes, but at what cost?

It’s unfortunate that The Manchurian Candidate hasn’t been more widely accepted by non-Demme die-hards, considering how intelligent and thrilling the re-imagination is. Perhaps the film will be reevaluated if Demme’s next film, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel 11/22/63, proves to be the hit thriller this film deserved to be. Whatever the case, the film’s big budget and disappointing performance might have worked out alright for Demme in the end. After all, it made the director go smaller for his next several projects: personal documentaries The Agronomist, Heart of Gold, and Man from Plains and his most recent narrative film: Rachel Getting Married.


March 30- Jonathan Demme's Documentaries
March 31- Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married

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