Remaking "Charade" could be seen as unimaginative or gutsy, foolhardy or noble, and you could apply all four adjectives to Jonathan Demme's "The Truth About Charlie." For such an adventurous director, you would think he could come up with original material for his first film since 1998's "Beloved." At the same time, you can't accuse him of taking the easy path.
After all, movie fans retain affection for Stanley Donen's 1963 comic thriller primarily for the cheeky byplay between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The less closely you examine the creaky plot, the better.
For "The Truth about Charlie," Demme inherits the story without the stars, which is kind of like getting a latte minus the espresso and then showing your versatility with foam. Unlike Grant and Hepburn, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton can't automatically claim the audience's love from frame one.
The director's approach is to dim the spotlight on the pair so you're paying as much attention to the supporting characters (always a Demme strength) and the film's visual and aural textures. In fact, "Charlie" hinges on a particular conceit: Demme has sought to remake a movie originally set in early-'60s Paris in the style of the French new-wave filmmakers thriving at the time.
Francois Truffaut's pop gangster film "Shoot the Piano Player" is a particular touchstone: Demme not only inserts snippets of the film, but its star, Charles Aznavour, pops up sporadically and surreally to croon romantic tunes for the would-be lovers. The end credits also include a shot of Truffaut's grave.
Actually, aside from a certain visual energy and the lingering promise of surprise, the two films have little in common. "Shoot the Piano Player" carries a significant emotional weight. Even when "The Truth About Charlie" gets down to life and death, it's liable to float off with the next breeze.
See, there's that matter of story...
Newton plays Regina Lambert, an Englishwoman who, upon returning home to Paris from vacation in Martinique, discovers that her husband of three months, whom she was planning to divorce, is dead and her apartment has been cleared out. Already, the viewers have been thrown more information than they can process quickly.
For instance, knowing that she's been married only three months, why should we sympathize with her flirting with Wahlberg's hunky character, Joshua Peters, who chats her up by a pool?
Demme has made a strategic error right out of the gate: Instead of wanting to see these two attractive people together, we're inclined to judge them badly. The way the movie rushes through their initial exchange also doesn't help; if we don't admire Joshua like Regina does, we suspect she's a fool for wanting him to hang around.
Regina soon learns that her husband, Charlie (Stephen Dillane), actually traveled under several different aliases and passports, and stole a big chunk of change. Three of Charlie's tough-looking former associates (Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Ted Levine) are after the money and assume Regina has it.
Meanwhile, a female French detective (Christine Boisson) is tracking Regina as a possible murder suspect, and an American intelligence officer named Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins) is counseling Regina in ducking her pursuers and finding the money herself. All the while Joshua hovers around Regina like some guardian angel with a sweet smile and rippling bod.
Hepburn comparisons aside, Newton is perfectly charming, showing a light touch that roles in "Beloved," "Mission: Impossible 2" and "Besieged" haven't allowed her. Wahlberg is more problematic because his screen personality runs to the recessive side. He pulls off dapper just fine, but he can't shake loose his basic earnestness to make room for a dashing hint of danger.
In the other key role, Robbins seems to be paying wry tribute to Walter Matthau's original turn as Mr. Bartholomew, employing a similarly flattened-out drawl and seeming on the constant verge of a wink. It's a self-amused performance that further makes us wonder why Regina keeps trusting people who seem off-kilter.
Still, it's nice to see Demme tapping into his loopy side again ("Something Wild," "Married to the Mob") after more than a decade of heaviness ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia," "Beloved"). Longtime Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto's camerawork, much of it handheld, is vibrant, the settings are eye-grabbing, and you could spend the entire movie just appreciating the expressive faces viewed in passing. As usual the music reflects Demme's eclectic good taste, frequently suggesting the intersection of cha-cha and hip-hop.
But so much activity has a wearying effect when in support of increasingly mundane thriller machinations.
Demme never gets the serious elements to jell with the playful ones, as the excruciatingly drawn-out climax in the rain - a pointed-gun showdown that Demme stages like a pacifist John Woo - makes painfully clear. Demme gets a lot of flavor and spice into his "Charade" remake, but he can't disguise that he's spiffing up leftovers that aren't so substantial or fresh.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"The Truth about Charlie"
Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Demme, Steve Schmidt, Peter Joshua, Jessica Bendinger; based on the "Charade" screenplay by Peter Stone; photographed by Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carol Littleton; production designed by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; music by Rachel Portman; produced by Demme, Peter Saraf, Edward Saxon. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 25. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some violence, sexual content/nudity).
Joshua Peters - Mark Wahlberg
Regina Lambert - Thandie Newton
Mr. Bartholomew - Tim Robbins
Il-Sang Lee - Joong-Hoon Park
Emil Zadapec - Ted Levine Lola Jansco - Lisa Gay Hamilton
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.