Film Review – Annie
Although there wasn’t a big calling for a modern update of the Annie The Orphan musical (and I don’t know if the 1982 John Huston film is considered a “classic” by most), I was surprised to be won over by this newest incarnation of Annie. It’s so earnest in its approach, so sugary sweet and good hearted that my cynical self gave way to its endearing wholesomeness. This is a fantasy in the way family films are, where the darker sides of humanity are never explored, and any trouble that finds its way in vanishes with a well-timed musical number. Those interested will most likely walk away fulfilled. If not for one or two missteps, this comes very close to being something great.
A lot of that has to do with the lead actress. Hot off her Academy Award nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Quvenzhané Wallis does a one-eighty as Annie, but is just as good. It’s an impressive feat for someone so young, to go from a very dramatic role to one where she has to sing, dance, and exude a “gee-whiz” optimism in almost every scene. Yet she never forces it. Half of the film’s success is in her ability to carry the narrative on her little shoulders, and she does so almost too easily. And who would’ve guessed she had singing chops as well? If she can show this level of range this early in her career, I can only guess how far she can develop.
Annie, as many already know, lives under the supervision of her mean foster mom, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Abandoned by her parents, Annie remains hopeful that she will be reunited with them; often waiting outside the restaurant she knows they have visited before. Things look glum for our heroine, but she never loses the belief that things will get better. Her luck suddenly changes when she meets Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) the CEO of a cell phone company who happens to be running for New York mayor. Seeing a chance to use Annie as a means to boost his voter appeal, Will invites her to stay at his luxurious penthouse during the campaign. As you can probably guess, hijinks ensue.
Jamie Foxx provides a strong performance as the business tycoon. Will barely hides the fact he’s running for mayor only for his company’s benefit. Foxx gets a lot of laughs with his straight-laced, socially awkward portrayal. Will has become so engrained in his work that he has forgotten how to interact with people. He follows a cordial handshake with a squirt of hand sanitizer. His hired assistants (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in nice supporting roles) help mold his persona, which sometimes gets him into situations he has no idea how to handle. But it’s when he meets Annie that things are thrown for a loop. Foxx guides the trajectory of his character, showing how Will’s tough outer shell softens once he starts to relate to Annie. Both Foxx and Wallis work well together – even though Foxx is the bigger star, he knows whose movie this is, and never tries to steal the spotlight.
Will Gluck cowrote the screenplay (with Aline Brosh McKenna) and directed. For the most part, Gluck remains a step back from the action – he rarely intrudes with directorial flair, opting for a more reserved style in technique. This is both a benefit and a hindrance. He lets the actors do their thing, but because of that some performances faltered, most notably Cameron Diaz. I like Diaz as an actress, but her over the top, hammy work as Miss Hannigan went against the grain from everyone else. Where Wallis and Foxx filled their roles effortlessly, Diaz strains to be bigger than life. She doesn’t come off as mean or as desperate as she’s meant to, instead she’s a cartoon character with no believability. I admire Diaz’s willingness to try anything, but her character needed to be brought down to earth.
All the great musicals have that one iconic image that defines it. Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain, the Sharks and Jets battling on the street, Julie Andrews running across a grassy hilltop – you recognize them without me saying their titles. This film sorely lacks that one defining moment. Songs like “It’s The Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” are sung just fine, but the construction of the musical sequences has a lack of creativity that undermines (particularly with “Tomorrow”) and robs them of the emotional impact they could have had. The execution is very generic – although some will be humming the songs when they exit the theater, the visual representations will not have nearly the same impression.
Luckily, there is just enough charm in Annie that we can forgive its shortcomings. I didn’t know what to expect going into this, and I was startled by how well it worked, despite whatever issues there were. For a movie meant to be enjoyed by any person of any age, this accomplished what it set out to do.