Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie is a miscalculation on every level. As a meat-and-potatoes thriller, it fails utterly. As an exercise in style, it’s disjointed and unimpressive. A remake of Stanley Donen’s 1963 Hitchcockian comic mystery, Charade, could’ve brought out Demme’s humor, something largely absent from his films post-1990. Instead, the movie is a joyless, dull affair, resulting in something completely unnecessary.
The film follows the broad plot of the original movie: a woman on holiday in Europe meets a mysterious man. When she finds out her husband has been murdered, she gets caught up in a game of international intrigue, fortune-seeking, and mistaken identity. While the original starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, The Truth About Charlie stars Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg. Already the film has an issue—namely, that Newton and Wahlberg are no Hepburn and Grant. A simple comparison to the original movie is warranted only because The Truth About Charlie is so hollow and unmotivated that the comparison has to be made. Otherwise, it’s incomprehensible as a work of art.
But the casting of this film is such a problem that even if the viewer didn’t know it was a remake, they would sense the failures of the film’s two stars. Mark Wahlberg, for one, is something of an X as an actor—that is, his roles are unknown until the whole equation is solved. As such, he’s miscast as an effortless charmer, a slick, globetrotting man of taste and refinement.
Traipsing through the boulevards of Paris in a beret, he constantly feels like he’s a second away from snatching the hat off and muttering, “Alright, Donnie, enough joke pictures this time.” Even beyond the obvious miscasting, Wahlberg’s vocal performance is unconvincing and uninspired. The same applies to Newton, who vacillates between too big and too small. Together, they completely lack chemistry and end up feeling like leads in a high school play.
If anything, Newton’s performance is unintentionally reflective of the film as a whole. It can’t manage to find the right tone or rhythm. Demme defies pigeonholing, but either the tight, precise suspense of The Silence of the Lambs or the outsized farce of Something Wild could have been valid takes on this story. Instead, Demme chooses both and neither. The world is too real for the story’s comical aspects to take flight. The thieves hunting after Newton’s character, for one, are too boring to amuse but not scary enough to take seriously. So what do you do? Well, you don’t laugh and you don’t clutch your seat. You simply wait for the film’s 104 minutes to run out.
So what do you do? Well, you don’t laugh and you don’t clutch your seat. You simply wait for the film’s 104 minutes to run out.
Demme feels bored with this story, which only raises the question, Why tell it? Without an answer to that question, the director attempts to distract us. Little flourishes of style (whip pans, Dutch angles, POV shots) don’t liven up the film’s slack pace. Instead, these touches betray the director’s boredom and, instead of inspiring or even stimulating the audience, make his apathy contagious.
One near-exception is a scene where the two leads slow dance to the music of Charles Aznavour (chosen as an homage to Shoot the Piano Player) in a Paris hotel room. In a moment perhaps too reminiscent of Tom Hanks’s monologue in Philadelphia, the room transforms into a kind of expressionistic dreamscape as the real Aznavour steps out to croon a love ballad. It’s a nice passage, but when Demme repeats it at the end of the film, it turns cheap. It’s the most interesting part of the movie and the only thing worthwhile. At 104 minutes, though, that’s just not enough.