On the surface, there is absolutely no reason to update the classic Broadway show Annie, which was already adapted for the screen in 1982. But this multicultural cast redux adds a hip swag to the classic kid’s story. This Annie is urban, emotional and fun. But far from perfect.
Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild), a foster child, lives with some other girls in a modern day tenement apartment in Harlem. The kids are watched over by a cruel and constantly inebriated Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Hannigan, when she is not screaming her lungs bloody and can catch her breath, reminds them why they live with her; $157 a head from the Social Services Department. Every Friday night Annie goes to a restaurant in Greenwich Village and waits for a couple to arrive. It’s the couple who abandoned her there as an infant. Friday nights for Annie are a mix of hope and disappointment.
On the other side of town, the rich side, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), an ambitious, billionaire cell phone honcho, lives in a luxury building. Stacks is running for mayor but not getting much traction. His campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) and advisor (Rose Byrne), coach him the best they can, but Stacks knack for charming the press or possible constituents is nonexistent. Then, as if by fate, he saves Annie from being run over by a car. In this day of iPhones and YouTube, his one act of heroism is recorded, uploaded and on the web in seconds. And thus begins the journey of two lost souls who try to make sense of their disparate lives – together.
Screenwriters Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna backdrop their story against a slow economic recovery that feels like the ghost of the 1920s Great Depression, the setting for the original Annie. The plotting, with the new algorithm, heads down that same city sidewalks as the original, with Annie and her new rich surrogate dad learning life lessons from each other. There are mishaps, misunderstandings, photo ops and finally a day of reckoning. The cheeky dialogue is surprisingly funny. When asked how big Stack’s penthouse apartment living room was, Annie replies, “I think it was Connecticut.” There are also sexual innuendos that adults will understand and kids won’t, kind of like the dialogue in Shrek, when children couldn’t figure out why their parents where howling with laughter.
Gluck’s direction is pretty kinetic. Scenes move along at a quick pace, and he seems to have a visual gimmick for each sequence. That said, there is nothing spectacular about his guidance; he lacks style and the footage looks more fitting for the Family Channel and not what you’d expect from a major theatrical release movie.
Wallis is solid, but we know from her Oscar-caliber performance in Beast of the Southern Wild that she is a gifted young actress. Foxx is smooth and is a lot better at crafting his stuffy, wealthy fortysomething character in this comedy than he is at building credible interpretations in dramatic films. His smirk is worth a thousand lines of dialogue. Cameron Diaz’s performance is over-the-top and she has to play to the cheap seats because she portrays such an unlikable character and is given the worst lines. Cannavale and Byrne are decent but not great. Easily Stephanie Kurtzuba, as a social-services clerk/counselor with a thick Russian accent and a roving eye, steals their thunder easily .
Tech credits—sets, editing, costumes, art direction— are O.K., but nothing particularly stands out.
Old songs like “Tomorrow” are joined by new tunes like “Who Am I?,” which is the best performed song in the movie. And while we’re talking about music, we have to ask, why cast a musical with people who can’t sing? Wallis soft vocals are forgettable. Actress dynamo yes. Singer no. Diaz is near tone death and her meek vocals are embarrassing. Only Foxx and Kurtzuba can belt it out, and their voices alone can’t carry the entire film. And to top it off, all they are doing is lip-synching. It’s not like they’re singing live, like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables.
Even with all these imperfections, as Annie careens towards the final moments your eyes may get a bit misty. She’s just a kid. Life has been brutal. She’s looking for love. How can you hate a protagonist like that? How can you hate the movie she’s in?