When you’re Jonathan Demme, and you’ve directed one of only three films in the history of the Oscar to sweep the “big 5” (The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), you can do pretty much whatever you want.
Demme takes some risks in The Truth about Charlie, a passable remake of the great 1963 Stanley Donen movie Charade. These risks give the film a distinct visual style, but they sometimes hinder the story.
Who Do You Trust?
PG-13 for Violence and sexual content
Regina (Thandie Newton) discovers that Charlie, her husband of three months, has been killed. When the police release her after questioning, she finds that her house has been ransacked.
Over the next 24 hours, three different groups approach her, each wanting Charlie’s six million dollars in diamonds. Regina knows nothing about the diamonds, and she doesn’t know whom to trust.
Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) approaches her first. He appears to be interested in Regina herself, but he asks too many questions. The second party is a group of three thugs in leather clothes who seem to be following her, looking for a moment of weakness. Finally, a man (Tim Robbins) from the “OCD,” a United States government agency, approaches Regina, warning her not to trust anyone who approaches her asking about her husband.
Regina decides to trust the man from OCD, and she has a crush on Joshua Peters, putting the three thugs at a big disadvantage. But the movie soon reveals that the thugs are not working alone, and that not everyone is who he claims to be.
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control
Donen’s Charade is often mistaken as a Hitchcock movie because of the twists, the tension, and the hero not in control of her own fate. Demme takes Donen’s Hitchcockian style and adds flairs that make The Truth about Charlie seem even more tense, more twisty, and more out-of-control.
For example, the movie is shot almost entirely with a handheld camera. As if handheld weren’t vertiginous enough, Demme cross-cuts between oppositely spinning shots of the lead actors’ faces when they first meet.
Elsewhere, Demme uses strained angles to capture two faces in the same frame, giving the film a sense of unbalanced diagonal tension. It’s dizzying and disorienting, as designed, but it’s too much. Pity anyone caught sitting in the front row.
Considered separately, the handheld photography might seem like a purely stylistic decision. But the movie uses other shortcuts — video footage, lots of close-ups — that imply a small budget. Too many of these shortcuts would make the film look cheap instead of stylized. Demme walks right on the edge, and he occasionally slips over.
Some of the film’s best qualities come from Demme’s clout, even if some of his stylistic choices were not the best. For one thing, he has access to great actors. Demme even lets his actors flesh out the roles of the three thugs, who in a lesser film would have been dismissed as unimportant.
Demme also has access to notable peers. French filmmaker and scholar Agnes Varda puts in a cameo, and Demme also thanks director Luc Besson in the credits. Both of these French filmmakers probably helped him with the French production. The credits also thank David Byrne, who no doubt contributed to the wonderful soundtrack of Arabic-French pop music.
The veteran director also includes scenes that would be hard for a novice filmmaker to get right — especially on a tight budget. In particular, the chase scenes through Paris streets and alleys work wonderfully, as does a tango scene in which just about everyone with a claim to Charlie’s fortune dances with a bewildered Regina.
As good as Charade is, it’s not the best choice for a remake. There is a certain “Aha!” moment, and after you’ve seen it once, it’s never the same movie again. Imagine a remake of The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense. These hypothetical remakes could still make good thrillers, but that moment of surprise, that hook, can’t be counted on to hook audiences anymore.
Demme makes a passable thriller out of this remake, but its flaws go beyond the lost “Aha!” moment. Still, if you haven’t seen Charade or you’re up for an average thriller, give Charlie a try. Just don’t sit in the front row.