December 19, 2014

Annie

I think I'm gonna to develop vertigo here

Grade: B –
Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and David Zayas
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.

It’s hardly surprising that Annie opens with a chipper, carrot-topped moppet giving a manically cheerful report to her school class, a presentation topped with a sudden soft shoe flourish. But Annie 1.0 is quickly jettisoned by her eye-rolling classmates, making way for Annie Bennett (Quvenzhan√© Wallis), whose curly locks come more natural and whose very appearance lends new resonance to an old story.

Those who decry the modern updates to this Annie, directed by Will Gluck and co-produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z, perhaps conveniently ignore the charming but hopelessly anachronistic elements to the original 1924 “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, drawn before the Empire State Building was even built. A cruel orphanage produces a protagonist so plucky she warms the heart of not only a hardened industrialist but also FDR himself, inspiring the New Deal in the process.

An analogous update would go something like this: Annie, languishing in poverty,contracts spinal meningitis, or, I dunno, the mumps. Daddy Warbucks takes in Annie, who refuses to jettison her optimism, telling everyone how happy she is and how much harder other people have it. Warbucks funds the medical attention needed for Annie to make a full recovery, and President Obama, inspired by Annie’s example, proposes the Affordable Care Act. Of course that doesn’t happen in this today’s Annie, and such a plot would be laughed off the silver screen even today.

So it hardly seems rash for the actual rework to incorporate contemporary references to pop culture and social media to modernize its setting. The urban update is set to the syncopation of jackhammers and car horns, filled with Citi Bikes and set against the backdrop of the now-completed One World Trade Center.

Annie’s orphanage is now a foster home somewhere above 96th Street, run by Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a former pop star who was kicked out of C+C Music Factory before they made it big. The embittered Hannigan sips incessantly on an “Arsenio Hall Show” tumbler and collects weekly $157.00 checks for each foster kids in her reluctant care.

Annie pines to reunite with her birth parents, traveling every Friday night a neighborhood Italian trattoria named Domani (Italian for "Tomorrow,” natch) where they once promised to return.

One day, Annie literally runs into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a germophobe telecommunications tycoon who is locked in a misbegotten campaign for mayor of New York City. Foxx saves Annie from an oncoming truck, and the ensuing YouTube video of his heroism spikes his poll ratings. Moreover, it gives Stacks’ oily campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) a bright idea:  temporarily move the destitute Annie into Stacks’ swanky bachelor pad and watch the votes roll in.

What’s different in this version of the story is that Annie is wise to the hustle and plays along since she gets the benefit of living in Stacks’ luxuriously mod penthouse. And per Annie, she believes Stacks is actually nice, “he just doesn’t know it yet.”

Beyond the opening ginger-haired hoofer, there are several allusions to Annies past, from a sight gag involving Stacks’ secretive chrome dome to Annie’s mut Sandy, now named for the superstorm (a change that nudges the boundary of good taste).

The most notable numbers from the Annie stage musical remain, many with reworked lyrics, including “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” and an especially wistful rendition of “Tomorrow.” While the musical productions are energetic, let’s just say these actors weren’t cast for their vocal chops. Foxx can certainly carry a tune, but his silky smooth rendition of “The City’s Yours,” one of three original songs written for the film, is incongruous with the fussy and fastidious Stacks. The rest of the singing is gratingly Auto-Tuned, particularly Diaz and Cannavale—their rendition of “Easy Street” is, well, bad. Just as warbly is Rose Byrne as Grace, Stacks’ personal assistant and Annie’s new mommy figure.

Acting-wise, the cast is quite capable and witty, including the charming Wallis, who burst onto the cinematic scene in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. The exception, again, is Diaz, who confuses Carol Burnett's boozy comic caricature from John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation for an overbroad, obnoxious dingbat.

The final act lumbers along, as a plot to send Annie away with parental imposters segues into a pointless car chase and a regrettably tepid climactic song and dance number. Yet overall, this Annie breathes zeitgeist into an old fable. And if you don’t like the changes, hey, the sun’ll still come out tomorrow.