Why remake Charade? Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic thriller was pure star vehicle, its labyrinthine plot a thin excuse for Audrey Hepburn to sport Givenchy and crack wise with Cary Grant. Stodgy and stagebound despite its Paris setting, a product of the studio system as it was staggering to its death, it’s fondly recalled for a handful of good oneliners and the overpowering charm of its stars.
The Truth About Charlie recasts Charade as its aesthetic polar opposite: director and co-screenwriter Jonathan Demme has reimagined the film as a French New Wave policier, the sort of slyly goofy film noir pastiche Francois Truffaut was tossing off when Charade was released. Charles Aznavour strolls in to sing a couple of seductive chansons (one in a clip from Shoot the Piano Player, Demme’s obvious inspiration), Anna Karina does a turn in a tango club, and New Wave director Agnes Varda has a hilarious cameo. Even better, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto updates Raoul Coutard’s freewheeling handheld camerawork, keeping the audience off-balance with vertiginous closeup pans and lunges.
It’s a brilliant conceit, and it saves the film from redundancy. Charade was a Hitchcock knockoff, after all, and Truffaut was nothing if not the world’s most ravenous Hitchcock fan. The double homage works as unintentional critique, showing how much more fun Charade could have been if the filmmakers had been as audacious as the irreverent cutups who were kicking the cinema back to life in Paris.
Thandie Newton plays Regina Lampert, a vacationing British newlywed who’s returning home to Paris to file for divorce. Her husband Charlie (Stephen Dillane) is an art dealer so consumed by his business affairs that she rarely sees him. Just before she leaves, she meets Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg), who makes an impression while failing to seduce her. She returns to find a trashed apartment and a police inspector (Christine Boisson), who drags her to the morgue to identify her husband’s body. Charlie had been travelling surreptitiously, using passports with assumed names, and had liquidated their substantial assets before he was killed. Regina knew nothing about him, and is now a suspect in his murder.
Joshua shows up again and offers his help after seeing a news report about the murder, as does a mysterious Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins), a representative from the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation. Soon Regina finds herself in the center of an intricate double-or-triple cross involving mercenaries, espionage and $6 million in stolen diamonds, which two governments and several murderous thugs believe she’s hiding.
The Truth About Charlie manages its plot well enough, but it’s pretty silly stuff. The film is less about who has the diamonds than it is about how long it’s going to take Regina to fall into Joshua’s arms. With a darker presence in the male lead, the question of whether or not he’s to be trusted would have some bite, but Wahlberg is simply too boyish to suggest a scheming sociopath. (With Cary Grant, it was less that he failed to suggest menace than that menace didn’t matter in the face of such easy charm.) Newton fares better with a simpler role, giving her lines a tartly flirtatious spin that’s all her own: even when she’s mouthing dialogue straight from Charade (all her best lines show up in both films), she doesn’t force comparisons to Hepburn.
It’s as unfair to use a director’s great early work to beat up on his uninspired newer projects as it is to compare a remake to a beloved original, but the high gloss of this film forces the issue. Over the years, Demme has become a precise, confident storyteller, moving ever further away from the shaggy dog lyricism of Melvin and Howard or Something Wild. For The Truth About Charlie to live up to the wonderful films it riffs on, it needs less polish – this is a beautifully crafted film – and more breathing room, the long plotless jags that Demme used to specialize in. Crammed into a frantically paced state of the art thriller, the playful asides get lost, bits of fun grafted into the wrong movie. (The funniest bit comes in the end credits, after suspense has ceased to be an issue.) For all its inventiveness, The Truth About Charlie is less a good movie than a good idea for one.