There are two glaring, almost unforgivable problems with the 2014 reboot of Thomas Meehan’s stage version of Harold Gray’s beloved comic strip character Annie. One is ideological, one is technical, and both are staggeringly wrongheaded. And yet, I’m still oddly inclined to recommend A2K14 (as I like to refer to it) because the film works in every individual moment. The faults are out in the open and always threatening to destroy the film around it, but thanks to charming, effortless performances across the board, an updated sense of urban style, and some sharp, clever writing, the pluses narrowly outweigh the two enormous minuses.
Instead of an orphan, Annie (played now by Beasts of the Southern Wild breakout performer Quvenzhané Wallis) is a foster kid in Harlem living with a bunch of other kids in cramped living conditions so their fading party-girl caregiver Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) can collect $150 and some change every month to house them. It’s a less than ideal situation for young Annie, who still pines to meet the real parents that abandoned her. A solution of sorts comes in the form of billionaire cell phone magnate and NYC mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), who saves Annie from getting hit by a car. His selfless act goes viral, becoming a boon for Stacks’ fledgling campaign, and the germaphobe, workaholic bachelor is convinced to take Annie in until the end of the election by his kindly assistant (Rose Byrne) and his buffoonishly evil campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale).
The transplanting of Annie to modern times and the change in the character’s race work in favour of the reworked material from director and co-writer Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits). It’s still no less outlandishly believable than any other adaptation of the material, but Foxx’s chemistry with Wallis is decidedly less creepy than it was in John Huston’s 1982 adaptation. The sass, smarts, and can-do spirit of the young girl comes across wonderfully thanks to Wallis’ remarkable comedic timing and ability to turn a phrase. If Beasts proved the young thespian’s worth as a dramatic actor, this proves she can quite often make something out of very little that’s provided for her, and by pairing her with a bunch of game adult co-stars who appear to be having fun makes the film seem like a lightweight and refreshing blast of old school entertainment. It almost becomes the John Hughes version of Annie.
But much like the sometimes privileged comedic world view of Hughes’ films – you know, where everyone is witty, but super affluent so their problems aren’t really as major as they make them out to be – there’s a similar sense that capitalism will ultimately save the day here. That’s the ideological problem at the heart of Gluck’s Annie. Her problems never come across as being overly “hard knock,” and outside of making Hannigan a drunk, pill popping misanthrope – conveyed nicely by Diaz’s deliriously over the top turn – things seem more inconvenient than dire. Once Stacks enters the picture, the film isn’t about Annie learning to appreciate what she has and learning a sense of inner strength, it becomes about how cool everything is in her new, temporary life. She revels in excess because that’s what the filmmakers and the studio think Annie should be about. It’s not about being happy for a respite from poverty. It’s about how incredibly awesome it is to be rich.
But that’s easily overlooked when so many of the gags and jokes being presented are delivered with the sort of energy and good will that the cast brings to the material. Diaz and Cannavale are appropriately slimy and dunderheaded has-beens that are striving to fight off their own irrelevancy. Byrne is appropriately and lovably scatterbrained as the tech nerd with secret eyes for Stacks, and a worthy best friend and motherly type to Annie. Foxx straddles the fine line between being an opportunistic jerk who can’t stand to be around homeless people, and someone who eventually just wants to do right by the city and his surrogate daughter. Their chemistry is aces, and watching they go toe to toe is almost all of the fun; another plus this adaptation has over Huston’s previous attempt. If nothing else, the cast and Gluck are making sure the character arcs in this production are earned as hard as the laughs.
Those laughs, however, tie into the other major liability of the film. Annie is unquestionably the worst assembled motion picture to come out this year next to Serena that’s backed by a major studio and a considerable amount of money. It looks and moves like it was edited by a six year old. No editing choices in this film make a lick of sense, and considering that this version is still ostensibly a musical – a genre that require rigorous editing and care to work – it’s even more annoying and distracting than the film’s underlying sociological implications. Without those big laughs that the movie can come up with seemingly out of nowhere, Gluck’s film as a whole is an abject failure.
Annie is scattershot, bouncing wildly between admittedly funny sequences that have no bearing whatsoever on the plot (a movie premiere for a hilariously idiotic and vapid young adult romance) and hamfisted dumps of exposition that come out of nowhere because the film suddenly decides it needs to get back on track. Even in the middle of sequences editor Tia Nolan (who similarly delivered a shoddy cut of Gluck’s last big screen effort and contributed to its overall failure) seems to get bored, cutting away to almost completely random camera angles that look awful and were probably never supposed to be used in the final cut of the film. It’s jarring and nonsensical, feeling like a rush job being delivered on behalf of a studio that demanded the film be ready by a certain date or everyone involved would get sued.
But that editing also mars the musical numbers, which feature some of the absolute worst lip-synching in a musical that I’ve ever seen. It’s embarrassing because just looking at the characters, you can tell these people have delivered these tracks on their own in a studio. You know these are their voices. You know Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz at some point recorded this. You also know that some of the songs have existed before and that they aren’t something forgettable that was come up with on the spot. The songs from Annie are pretty memorable tunes. They’re so poorly composed in the film, however, that no elaborate staging can save them. They’re so obviously edited to hell that no suspension of disbelief would make you think you’re actually watching people break out into song. It’s a real testament to the performers and to Gluck as a director that they can even salvage anything out of these moments at all. Quite frankly, the film would work only slightly better if the musical numbers were axed entirely. It still wouldn’t be enough to shake the fact that this looks and moves like an assembly cut of the film designed for test audiences rather than a finished product.
Gluck is a talented humourist and director, but he hasn’t yet found another studio project that’s worthy of his talents. He tries to make Annie work by any means necessary, and the film certainly represents the next stepping stone of career success for its young star. I just wish I didn’t have to constantly get sucked out of the experience by saying “Why the heck are you doing that?” every time the film decides to second guess itself. But each scenes as a whole still works, and despite some obvious pitfalls, no one on screen is half-assing or phoning in what they’re doing. They signed up for a film that they obviously saw as more than the ultimate sum of their parts. It doesn’t quite end up on screen, but the final product is just passable enough to make for an enjoyable afternoon at the movies with the family.
And none of the kids in the packed screening auditorium seemed bored or restless, which is probably the best benchmark of the film’s ultimate appeal and quality.