Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The trouble with Annie

When I saw Annie in the mid-80s, performed by a road show company here in Columbus, Ohio, I wasn't expecting much. After all, it was a sickly sweet and sentimental musical about an exploited orphan and her fairy-tale rescue by a rich benefactor, and the one hit song from the show, "Tomorrow," sounded simplistic and boring. Instead, I was absolutely charmed by the show from beginning to end (it must be said that the weaker songs are bundled together in the last half-hour, but there's also a big, shiny Christmas tree on stage as well!). The show ran for years on Broadway, has been revived at least once, and seems like it will live on forever in school and community productions.

So why has every filmed version of Annie been a disappointment? The 1982 movie suffered from the start with a mismatched director--John Huston, a great director (Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Dead), had far too heavy a hand for what should have been a frothy musical. Albert Finney turned out to be a very good Daddy Warbucks, the best so far, and Anne Reinking gets to kick her long legs to good effect. But the character of Miss Hannigan, such wicked fun on stage, is trickier on film when there's no longer that literal distance between her and us. Carol Burnett (above, with Aileen Quinn as Annie) is fun but a little too much in her close-ups. And that ending--instead of a sweet Christmas scene where the nasty would-be kidnappers get their comeuppance, we get a sprawling action sequence which climaxes with Annie dangling from the top of a bridge, her life in danger. The film took in a decent amount of money but because of the huge budget, actually lost money for its studio.

Annie was remade for television in 1999 with musical theater pros like Victor Garber, Audra McDonald (both pictured at right), Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, and in general, it was an improvement, if only because it restored the lovely "NYC" number that Huston had cut out, and had an ending closer to that of the stage show. But Kathy Bates is a disappointment as Hannigan--if Burnett was a bit too high-energy, Bates is a bit too low-energy, and not very scary/funny. McDonald and Cumming fare best, but Chenoweth is not used to her full potential and Garber is a bit bland.

Now there's the new 2014 Annie movie, moved up from the depression past to the glittery present. The reviews on this were mostly terrible, but when I approached it with low expectations, I actually didn't hate it. But it's no better than either of the other two versions. It does some things right: 1) the time update mostly works, and I like the role that social networking plays in the plot, especially at the climax when folks use Instagram & Twitter to track the path that Annie's kidnappers take; 2) the clean, colorful look of the movie, even in the orphange--pardon me, the foster mom's dwelling, as the kids are now foster children; 3) some of the hip-hop arrangements of the songs, particularly "Hard Knock Life"; 4) Cameron Diaz took a little getting used to as Miss Hannigan, but she's ends up being a plus.

Now what doesn't work: 1) no one can sing; everyone is Auto-Tuned and they still don't sound good. Quvenzhané Wallis (in the red coat in the picture below) is generally fine as Annie, but her singing voice is especially thin. Jamie Foxx (as the Warbucks character), who moonlights as a singer in real life, is also disappointing; 2) no one can dance, or at least we can't tell if they can, because all the dance numbers consist of people jumping around and flailing; 3) there is zero chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne; 4) some flat-out amateurish direction that cuts away from people and scenes too soon, or lingers too long. The ending reverts back to the car chase trope of the Huston version but at least it's more fun than the original was.

Why can't they get Annie right? I think it's partly because the show is, at heart, not a gargantuan spectacle, but filmmakers think that all stage musicals must be made spectacular on the screen. This approach, however, flies in the face of what makes Annie fun: a relatively small-scale, sentimental story with musical numbers that have flair and style rather than bells and whistles. It almost doesn't matter who plays Annie--as long as she can sing and look cute, the part is practically foolproof. But in all three movie/TV versions, there is a lack of chemistry between Warbucks and his secretary. Each actor may be good on his or her own, but none of the pairs generate much heat, or even light. And I wish someone would film this with all the original songs intact. I love "NYC" and was glad to see it in the Victor Garber version, but I'm sorry that no filmed version has included "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover." Maybe the perfect version will be made... tomorrow.