I think I've finally figured out why they do it: why Steven Spielberg interrupts his unparalleled career to make A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or Barry Levinson follows Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man with a misbegotten dog called Toys -- which nobody saw and nobody remembers. They do it because it's God's way of keeping them humble, of demonstrating that even the gifted are prone to profound lapses in judgment just like the rest of us. Enter Jonathan Demme, Oscar-winning director of Silence of the Lambs and creative force behind such other outstanding films as Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia and Beloved. Why with this kind of track record would Demme think it a crackerjack idea to remake Stanley Donen's Charade, a 1963 comedy that starred screen legends Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? Is there something about that film, which many of us recall with enduring fondness, that Demme thought needed fixing? The only answer to these questions is that in deciding to make his current The Truth About Charlie, Jonathan Demme's time had arrived for a nice slice of humble pie.
Changed so little that Peter Stone (who wrote Charade) is still accorded writing credit, The Truth About Charlie is the story of Regina Lampert (Thandie Newton), newlywed wife of Charles Lampert (Stephen Dillane), a cosmopolitan art dealer based in Paris. Regina returns to her swank apartment one day, finds it ransacked and learns from the police that her husband has been murdered. They do not know who killed him or why. But she's a suspect herself, and as if that weren't scary enough, she's pretty soon being menaced by three toughs who pester her for the $6 million they say Charlie owed them. In the original, these three greedy white guys were memorably played by George Kennedy, James Coburn and Ned Glass. In the current PC version the villainous trio are re-imagined as an Asian man (Joong-Hoon Park), an African-American woman (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and a Balkan (Ted Levine). Alas, the racial, sexual and ethnic diversity has been accomplished at the expense of what we might otherwise term "character color."
Thank goodness a knight in shining armor named Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) arrives to protect Regina. Unless, aghast, Joshua is a manipulator rather than a protector and his name is Carson Dyle, not Joshua Peters. Unless, aghast, his name is Alexander Dyle, not Carson, who is dead, unless, whew, Alexander is trying to solve the mystery of his brother Carson's death and in the process might be Regina's protector, after all. Unless Joshua's name isn't even Dyle, Carson or Alexander. So thank goodness there's that American intelligence officer Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins). He'll help her no matter what Joshua's name is. Unless ... .
In all these regards, The Truth About Charlie follows the twisty plot of Charade with such faithfulness that we grow agitatedly impatient. Even the names are the same. And those of us who remember the original know exactly where we're headed. Or almost, anyway. Eventually, small changes emerge. The current film has eliminated the cute little boy who plays a pivotal plot function in the original. And true to Demme's feminist credentials, Regina is made a more active agent in her own fate, not quite the helpless pawn she is in Donen's film. I might even concede that the current film's climax arrives with more complication and exhibits more heart.
But the picture as a whole is still a pale imitation. And that's primarily the product of casting. Thandie Newton is a woefully under-appreciated actress. She's absolutely gorgeous, and she has a wonderfully expressive face. She doesn't begin to have Hepburn's stature, but she's a performer with greater range. The problem does not lie with her performance. Unfortunately, Demme has surrounded her with a poor choice of men. Tim Robbins tries to read his lines with the same intonations Walter Matthau used in the original, but he never seems the figure of refuge that Matthau does.
And then there's Cary Grant, perhaps the most charismatic figure ever to stand before a motion picture camera. His photograph appeared in the dictionary next to the word charm. But his characters side-stepped the rectitude expected of such contemporaries as John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck. Grant would have played Bill Clinton. There was always a hint of the wicked in the way he looked at his leading women. He wasn't often the bad guy, but we were always convinced he could be. I have liked Mark Wahlberg very much in Boogie Nights and Three Kings, but his appeal is that of the working-class seeker, not the slick sophisticate. Newton's fellow Aussie Mel Gibson was probably the right choice for this role. He's not as smooth as Grant, but he has comparable standing. In the final analysis, though, why make this picture at all? If what we need is Charade, let's watch the one we've already got.
- Trust me: Mark Wahlberg seduces and confuses Thandie Newton in Jonathan Demme's regrettable The Truth About Charlie.