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Annie (2014)
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by Brett Gallman

"Some interesting notions are left orphaned in this safe update."
2 stars

The opening gag of “Annie” is a clever if not obvious wink at itself, as it presents the familiar image of an overly sprightly red-headed girl named Annie who is quickly shoved aside in favor of a new, less syrupy and precious (but no less precocious) Annie Bennett (Quvenzhane Wallis). Upon assuming the mantle, she announces this update’s newfound sense of sass—this is a thoroughly millennial “Annie,” self-assured and somewhat full of itself. Then again, reviving a Depression-era tale for a modern, even more jaded milieu probably requires some measure of confidence.

Interestingly, Annie introduces herself while giving a school report on FDR (another knowing wink in the direction of its predecessor) and intones the virtue of the president’s treatment of class struggle with the New Deal, a timely nod that connects this film with the preoccupations of the original story. The problem is that it remains a rather harmless wink and nod because the film refuses to engage the politics of class disparity that its center. It turns out that maybe this “Annie” isn’t as sly or clever as it thinks it is.

Instead, it’s exactly what you expect it to be: a sappy, silly wish-fulfillment fantasy where Annie herself--now no longer an orphan but rather a foster kid—must impart wisdom on the various adult figures in her life. She might pine for a reunion with her parents, but she mostly exists as a magical moppet to re-center the priorities of the misguided folks she encounters, particularly Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), an out-of-touch cell phone magnate with mayoral ambitions. When he saves Annie from being run over by a car, his always-scheming campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) capitalizes on the incident by arranging for the two to meet. Quick to note that she’s being taken advantage of, Annie figures she ought to milk the situation for all its worth by proposing to move in with Stacks.

From there, the film is a collection of various hijinks and pratfalls, many of which are pleasant enough—well, as pleasant a movie observing the exploits of underprivileged foster kids can be. Expectedly, “Annie” coaxes its fair share of cloying charm from its premise. Entire sequences are dedicated to both Annie and her friends cutting up and standing in awe of Stacks’s unbelievably lavish existence.

Director Will Gluck clearly stands with them and considers them audience surrogates, as his camera often gazes at the posh, glamorous surroundings, which stand in stark contrast to the dingy but still respectable Harlem streets Annie calls home. Underlying the gaze is a clear reverence for this wealth and the assumption that materialism trumps all; while the film keeps one eye on Annie’s quest to find her parents, it’s almost an afterthought and only gives rise to the film’s climactic set-piece, a chase sequence involving both a car and a helicopter. To say that “Annie” gets away from itself is an understatement.

Of course, you almost expect that as well—after all, the film is inspired by both a decades-old comic strip that’s been mined as a stage musical and a children’s film in the past, so its relentless insistence on silliness and treacly preachiness hardly comes as a surprise. It’s a film painted in the broadest of strokes, with few (if any) cast members showing any sort of restraint, while Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna’s screenplay tidily underscores each message (usually with songs but also with obvious, on-the-nose dialogue). Despite so many opportunities to be so, “Annie” is hardly subversive: we often hear about how Stacks pulled himself up from an impoverished childhood, but the film is content to peddle the American Dream in its purest form, though it is nice that it extends it to people of color (much has been made about the film’s diverse make-up, and its commitment to that is commendable but almost incidental to the final product).

Fittingly, such a superficial film wears is charm of its sleeves in the form of a cast willing to throw itself to the teeth of a machine fuelled by schmaltz. Less accomplished performers may have been spit out on the other side, reduced to embarrassment. Not this crew, though: everyone is game, and Gluck provides ample opportunity for everyone to mug at some point or another, including those in bit roles, like Stephanie Kurtzuba hamming it up in a government worker star-struck by Stacks’s riches. Diaz often steals the show as Miss Hannigan, Annie’s foster mother who proves to be just as bratty as the girls in her care. A washed-up pop singer, Hannigan’s slobby demeanor is a good and allows Diaz to re-channel the messy ennui that made her so indelible in “Bad Teacher.”

Wallis is a stabilizing force among the chaos at times. While she’s obviously tasked with transforming into an adorable urchin, she finds ways to undercut what could be an insufferable role. There’s humanity on display here, and, though this role might be worlds away from her debut in “Beasts of the Southern,” it’s a fine platform for her talents. Even in a role that demands she become the precocious Hollywood ideal of childhood, she shows maturity and poise during those rare genuine moments provided by the film. With Foxx and Rose Byrne (starring as Stacks’s assistant), she forms a charismatic trio that charms in spite of the film’s forced sentiment. Whatever’s genuine in “Annie” stems from these three.

Gluck—who has proven a deft, witty touch with films like “Easy A”—sometimes feels like a saboteur with his clumsy handling of the story’s signature musical numbers. Familiar tunes like “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life” are refurnished for modern sensibilities and rhythm, the latter of which is reflected in a choppy editing style that obscures the choreography and imagination found on the stage. Only Diaz’s rendition of “Girls” really benefits from Gluck’s cloistered, sloppy style; otherwise, “Annie” is a film with a beat but without cadence—it feels like a messy assemblage of songs and dance numbers with little to connect them besides Gluck’s rapid, energetic pace. It certainly moves, at least in the same way a runaway train might barrel ahead without direction or purpose.

After its self-assured opening gambit, you begin to wonder just how much confidence “Annie” really has: it features some brave conceptual choices and intriguing subtexts rumble subtly beneath its surface, yet it all remains stifled and muted, with even the musical aspects serving as something of an obligation. It announces itself pretty boldly but is content to swagger without saying much of anything at all.

What it does say is sometimes pleasant, charming, and even funny enough—it’s earnest in a way you might not expect given its somewhat smug dismissal of its lineage, and its heart and optimism are well-founded, at least when they can cut through the cloud of materialism hanging overhead. Expecting anything more from a children's movie is probably foolish, even if the film itself sometimes draws attention to the potential that goes untapped, the fitting fate of a film that extolls the virtues of tomorrow because it doesn’t realize what it's capable of today.

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originally posted: 12/22/14 08:29:29
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User Comments

1/12/15 Bob Dog Surprisingly sincere and joy inspiring! 5 stars
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  19-Dec-2014 (PG)
  DVD: 17-Mar-2015


  DVD: 17-Mar-2015

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