The Truth About Charlie

(Jonathan Demme, USA, 2002)


There is a lot of nostalgia around at present for the glory days of American cinema in the 1970s, prompted (for instance) by the sycophantic documentary about producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002).


Yet not all mavericks of that period have ended up today with the acclaim heaped on Roman Polanski or Martin Scorsese. Surely the saddest and most bewildering case of an artist from that era who has subsequently lost his way is Jonathan Demme.


Demme was once known for his rough and ready portraits of outrageous American lives, such as Melvin and Howard (1980). He had a combination of stylistic flair and political savvy which propelled his work right up to the end of the ‘80s. But his big mainstream success with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), however deserved, seemed to derail his sensibility fatally.


Over the past decade, Demme’s inflated sense of liberal conscience has led him into soggy dramas like Philadelphia (1993) and Beloved (1998). Now he desperately wants his hip cachet back, so he turns to the mode of comedy-thriller which worked for him in the ‘80s with Something Wild (1986).


The idea of remaking Charade (1963) is, to say the least, ill-advised. Stanley Donen’s tricky film was already a somewhat strained homage to, and pastiche of, Hitchcock classics like North By Northwest (1959). To modernise it effectively means ruining its fragile balance of cuteness and thrills. Demme and his legion of writers feel compelled to load the plot with more convolutions than it can bear.


At least Charade had elegance and grace, due mainly to the effortless charisma of its stars. But who today can possibly fill the shoes of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant? Casting Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg is not exactly an act of kindness to them. They can both be fine actors (respectively in Besieged, 1998, and The Yards, 2000), but here they flounder under the obligation to be light and sparkling – and there is absolutely no romantic chemistry between them.


The Truth About Charlie is one big fashion overload on every level. Demme frantically throws in the latest, trendy music, clothes, architecture and design. Since the story is set in Paris, fleeting references to the ‘60s Nouvelle Vague abound, including cameos from Agnès Varda and Anna Karina.


But there is something deeply wrong with filmmmakers – and Demme is not the only one guilty of this – whose idea of instant Cool is a short-circuit jamming superficial memories of an old New Wave (from over forty years ago!) with a quick fix of Wong Kar-Wai’s lush, dreamy style.

MORE Demme: The Agronomist, The Manchurian Candidate, Ricki and the Flash

© Adrian Martin March 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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