The Truth About Charlie updates the classic Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant caper Charade, about a beautiful widow in Paris stalked for a fortune she never knew about, with the freedom and euphoria of a moviemaking team on a creative spree.
With incandescent Thandie Newton as the heroine, stalwart Mark Wahlberg as the enigmatic American who comes to her aid, and slippery Tim Robbins as an officious helpmate from the American Embassy, director Jonathan Demme treats the premise as a great big snowball that he can roll merrily down a fresh new slope. You can almost hear him laughing as it changes shape and picks up size and momentum.
Among the things it gathers as it grows are a view of Paris that's both old school and up-to-the-minute - equal parts high glamour and gutter panache, with a multicultural texture that fits the sizzling world-music soundtrack. But there's also a recovery of the virtuous heroine as a chic love object and of the lean, not-so-mean American as a romantic figure. (Wahlberg is, intentionally, more Gary Cooper in Desire than Cary Grant in Charade.)
Best of all, the movie's eclectic, prismatic style opens your eyes and enlivens your senses instead of overwhelming them (and numbing them) in the contemporary fashion. With Newton, Demme has a star who elicits instant affection and is able to move from slapstick pathos to true grit. So it feels natural for Demme to employ a free-floating camera that can shift with her moods and light-fingered editing that can plunge into fantasy or flashback at the speed of wit.
Few performers have ever been as deft at expressing a brainy person's confusion as Newton is here, and few have had the luck to have a director like Demme, who has the confidence to make an audience feel equally discombobulated, the skill to make that feeling pleasurable, and the dramatic intelligence to make Regina's moments of clarity satisfying.
The Truth About Charlie is about daring to move beyond the familiar and confronting the unknown. And it operates that way as a movie. Not only does the story take the original Charade onto untrod paths, but Demme goes on to energize the film with references that veer from the French New Wave of the '60s to the ultra-contemporary Run Lola Run. And he puts together a soundtrack that starts with classic pop - Charles Aznavour singing love songs in a cameo as funny as Marshall McLuhan's in Annie Hall (yet also moving) - then takes in vital and seductive mixtures of Asian, African and European rhythms and sounds.
Newton's Regina, or Reggie for short, is a Londoner who wed art-dealer Charles (Stephen Dillane) after a whirlwind courtship and has been married only three months when he's killed. Most of Paris is still a mystery to her - certainly the parts that she enters when trying to figure out the motives of three menacing strangers (Ted Levine, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Joong-Hoon Park).
It's a triumph for Newton's openhearted performing and Demme's strategizing that we're right with her as she visits a carnival, a flea market, a toy store and a tango club to decipher a plot rooted in a double-cross that started years before in the Balkans. Along the way, laughs and thrills emerge swiftly and unexpectedly. They spring up from odd sights, like a wrinkled matriarch peering at Reggie with jarring intensity. Or from quizzical compositions, like heads seen from a morgue slab as they peer down at a body (which grows funnier and spookier with every repetition). Or from Anna Karina belting out "Charade D'Amour" as Reggie changes partners in a goofy, sinister tango.
Wahlberg's semi-feigned, semi-real earnestness plays off beautifully against Newton's transparency. So does Robbins' unctuousness - he hasn't been this droll since The Player. And Demme's refusal to underline the gags or to set his stars above the rest of the ensemble pays off bigtime with Levine, Hamilton and Park. Levine, best known as the straight-man police chief to Tony Shalhoub's phobic detective on TV's Monk, is both threatening and risible as a severe hypochondriac himself, with acupuncture needles hanging from his head and a pharmacy on his table.
Hamilton begins ferociously and becomes touching and amusing (though still surly) when she softens on Reggie. And Park squints at the camera ambiguously, as if asking, "I look like a hero, don't I? Why am I some kind of a villain in this movie?"
Actually, no one is a villain in The Truth About Charlie - except maybe Charlie, and he's dead already. The picture is over before you realize Demme has managed to fill a thriller with tension without firing a shot and to suffuse it with comedy without resorting to bathroom humor. (The one toilet joke here is a quick flash of Reggie and Charles brushing their teeth with smokers' toothpaste, side by side.) Without any proselytizing for the brotherhood of man, the whole movie has a vibrant internationalism; in its own art-for-art's sake way, it embraces the world.
The Truth About Charlie
Starring Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg and Tim Robbins
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Released by Universal Pictures
Time 100 minutes