dir: Will Gluck
It must be hard to take on a classic in order to remake it. You’d think it was daunting, wouldn’t you? If you loved the musical of Annie, and the movie from 1982, then it would have to be daunting.
Of course, if you don’t give a good goddamn about the movie, and in fact it looks like it’s not as universally adored as I assumed it was (not up there with Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz, but more like with Starlight Express and The Wiz instead), then it’s just an opportunity.
Like the song says, don’t waste the opportunity.
I have a theory. I don’t think it’s true, necessarily, so you might wonder why I’d bother relating it. Well… I’m sure there’s a valid reason, but I just can’t find it right now, might have fallen behind the couch cushions or something.
Here goes: the only real reason this flick was made was because Jay Z wants to annihilate his past.
You may know who Jay Z is, you might not. To some people he’s the former drug dealer turned producer and eventual rap demigod. To others he’s that guy married to Beyoncé, the one-woman music industry.
To me he’s a lazy scumbag who only ever achieved great fame and fortune because he lifted the chorus of It’s the Hard Knock Life, for Us and played it to death on of his own songs, as if it takes any level of skill to ‘borrow’ the hook from someone else’s iconic song and not pay for it.
Jay Z is one of the producers of this flick, along with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who took some time out of her busy schedule playing a villain on Gotham to pony up cash for a ‘black’ version of Annie. I don’t know what Will Smith took time out from, maybe it was Scientology related, maybe he was having baffling conversations with his strange kids, it certainly wasn’t making good movies.
Is it then a coincidence that the version of Hard Knock Life used in this movie sounds a lot like the version he ‘appropriated’, instead of a new version? Did this whole thing happen because Jay Z is trying to manipulate the historical record so that future generations will never know that on top of his other crimes, he stole from Little Orphan Annie as well?
From an orphan? Have you, at long last, no shame, sir? None at all?
As for this being an African-American version of Annie, that’s a bit of a stretch as well. Sure, Annie is played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who I last saw in the sublime Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the Daddy Warbucks character is played by Jamie Foxx, a man so rich he can afford an extra X on his surname. Two roles played by African-Americans doesn’t really constitute a revolution in cinema, surely. All the other major roles are cast with calming, reassuring white people, so everything’s okay. Rose Byrne, Australia’s Own Rose Byrne, cast against type in order to play a prim and proper Brit(?) with so much toffee in her mouth and manner that she sounds like Mary freakin’ Poppins.
You know, just so the white folks in the audience don’t freak out from seeing too many (ie. 2) African-Americans on screen simultaneously.
The intro is pretty insulting to fans of the 1982 film. A redheaded, overeager moppet carries on at the front of the class, as if to say “Is this really what you would have preferred?” But then New Annie takes the stage, or at least the front of the class, and shows us how much cooler an Annie she will be.
Original? Smooshed out of our minds. New Annie? The fertile ground of our headspace is ready to accept you, corporate masters.
Of course it’s set contemporarily, because who wants to see a musical set in the 1920s or 30s? Annie runs around New New York, a metropolis of glass, concrete and wealth from which she is excluded, as an orphan. Whatever hardships she’s endured, she is unbowed, and has as many high hopes as her counterpart from 80 years ago.
She makes a weekly pilgrimage to an Italian restaurant called Domani (Italian for ‘go scratch yourself in an uncomfortable place’, no wait, it stands for Tomorrow!), because it’s the last place her parents were seen. Hope against experience wins every time.
She makes her way not to an orphanage, but to a strange, bitter foster parent played with horrible aplomb by Cameron Diaz. Jeez, she really is willing to make herself seem horrible, but she’s no Carol Burnett. Carol Burnett was / is legendary as Miss Hannigan. Her drunken malice, her undisguised hatred of the girls in her charge, her wicked vamping; I recall them all with great fondness.
Diaz as Hannigan? Urgh. She’s horrible, but she’s intentionally horrible, I guess. There’s a different kind of lecherous charm on display.
In the original, Annie ends up in super-capitalist Daddy Warbucks’s mansion as part of the random Orphan Selection program his secretary set up to make him look good. In this one, Warbucks becomes Stacks, and Stacks (Foxx) literally runs into her in the street. A video of him ‘saving’ Annie resurrects his hopes of winning an upcoming mayoral election, and so these unlikely people are thrown together by circumstance and PR hacks like a guy called Guy (Bobby Cannavale) who sees PR opportunities anywhere and everywhere.
Where Daddy Warbucks was a blustering, cigar smoking blowhard who hated FDR, the Democrats, Communists and anyone who got in the way of him making a buck through war profiteering, Stacks is a mobile phone magnate who works non-stop and has nothing but contempt for his roots, like most decent people. He’s also germophobic, slightly prissy and entirely isolated. He might be the living embodiment of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-own- bootstraps, American Dream type nonsense, but he is meant to be defined by his love of New York City itself.
Why does he want to be mayor? Because he loves New York City. What does that mean? I have no idea. He and Annie somewhat bond over their shared love of hard work, moxy, elbow grease, stick-to-itiveness etc, but mostly because of their love of New York: a city which made Stacks mega-wealthy, but excluded Annie almost entirely until she proved useful to this billionaire.
Are there songs? Oh yes, there are songs aplenty. Are they as good as the original? Mostly, I’d say. The reason I’d say that is not that Aileen Quinn may have been a better singer than Quvenzhane, which she was, it’s that the musical numbers in the 80s Annie has style, had ambition, had a whole bunch of qualities lacking from most of the musical numbers here. It’s not enough to just update tracks with slicker beats and more Autotune.
There are some new songs too, a couple written by Sia, the best of which is something called something like Opportunity, which was the one song that moved us to tears, and the point at which I started carrying about Annie. This is more than three quarters of the way through the film, by this stage, so it means I was resolutely resistant to its charms up till then.
It’s unfair to just keep comparing it to the original, because whoever the hell Will Gluck is, he’s no John Huston. John Huston? You know, the guy that made a bunch of legendary films way back in the last century? Annie was at the time considered one of his worst films, but I don’t see it. I love his version of Annie, and I’ve watched it dozens of times with my daughter. And I’ll probably watch that one more than I ever will this one when it’s eventually released on Blu-Ray.
I did have a certain amount of fear when I was watching this new Annie with my daughter: I was afraid that she’d like this version more, and she’d never want to watch the older version ever again. My fears proved true. She herself told me she likes this new version more, because it’s funnier and the contemporary setting makes more sense to her than the Depression Era, which might as well be the Stone Age as far as she’s concerned.
This is what it means to get old. All I can do is sigh and move on.
I can see why it would have been so hard to make a decent Annie in this cynical day and age. What was earnest and hopeful in the version set during the Great Depression cannot survive into this dreary era, because any contemporary Annie, regardless of who she’s played by, is going to have to be streetwise and slightly cynical. It’s unavoidable. A contemporary Annie who’s an orphan on the mean streets of New York who is innocent and naïve would look like a simpleton, and would be the butt of every joke, like she was plucked by a time traveller from an earlier, dumber era.
And you can’t play it that way. There are plenty of other differences, most of which aren’t a problem, but truly, as much as I loved Quvenzhane’s performance, since she’s clearly a great actress and will hopefully go on to do great things, and she ends up having a decent rapport with Foxx, this version isn’t always convincing. Stacks doesn’t really make that much sense as a character, so his ‘change of heart’ towards the end isn’t really much of a change of heart. The character was always a mouthpiece for the comic strip’s creator Harold Gray’s extreme right wing views, but here he doesn’t even really stand for the virtues of unrestrained capitalism or greed. He stands for childless workaholics who were doing fine until some bloody kid came along and destroyed their alone time but taught them to love again.
And that doesn’t resonate with anyone, except maybe billionaires.
Annie 2014. New, improved, urban and with no unsightly poor people anywhere!
7 times Diaz’s version of Little Girls had me shaking my head and muttering ‘oh my goodness, oh my goodness’ out of 10
“Why are you running?”
- “Because it gets me places quicker” – there is logic to what you say, and I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter - Annie