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December 19, 2014

Is the Third Time the Charm – or Strikeout – for ANNIE on Film?

In some ways, the new ANNIE movie is best of the three film adaptations.

But that’s not saying much, is it? We’ll still have to wait for a faithful and wonderful film musical of the 1977 Tony-winning classic. Where’s the one that honors the moving and marvelous book by Thomas Meehan, the bouncy music by Charles Strouse and the sharp lyrics by Martin Charnin?

Not going to see this updated version? Listen closely; let me fill you in.

This ANNIE retains only eight of the songs we know, if you can even count “Easy Street” and “Little Girls.” Those two are faithful for only the first few lines – not just lyrically but musically, too.

Thank or blame Sia, Greg Kurstin and Will Gluck, who augmented those two and wrote three new ditties. Funny that a musical famous for “Tomorrow” has a new song that stresses “I will trust today” (not that, as Seinfeld would say, there’s anything wrong with that). The triumvirate also dropped “N.Y.C.” in favor of a song that champions New York as a place where “anyone can make their dreams come true.” That notion is not only grammatically incorrect, but suspect, too. ANNIE has always been optimistic, but enough is enough.

Nevertheless, on its own terms, screenwriters Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna have delivered a film that works (save for a frightening flaw in logic, which we’ll tackle later). Producers are always saying of old properties “We’re going to bring this show into the--” before they give the number of the current decade. This ANNIE, under Gluck’s direction, too, is reasonably successful in reaching this goal.

Quvenzhané Wallis is exceptional as Annie Bennett. The writers make a mistake in saying she was abandoned at the age of four – for a kid who has even a vague memory of her parents deserting her would be less inclined to find the bums.

Now Annie is one of five foster children under the thumb of Miss Colleen (not Aggie) Hannigan. Cameron Diaz both amuses and terrorizes as the caretaker who’s really interested in taking in kids for that $157 a week per child. Her backstory establishes that she’s bitter because her show-biz dreams didn’t come true. “I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish,” she mourns.

Over the years, Hootie has become a joke in some rock circles. If that doesn’t convince us that fame is indeed fleeting, what about when Miss Hannigan mentions George Clooney only to have one foster kid ask “Who’s George Clooney?”

Ah, but in the years to come, this ANNIE will be chided for being SO 2104. Its mentions of Citi-Bikes, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook will soon date it.

Jamie Foxx is a gravitas-filled Will Stacks, the new name for Oliver Warbucks. He’s made an immense fortune from cell phones that “never drop a call.” Now Will wants to be mayor, which could happen with a little help from his right-hand woman Grace Farrell (the fine Rose Byrne) and underhanded chief advisor Guy (the efficient Bobby Cannavale) who has neither a last name nor scruples.

When Michael J. Fox is seen endorsing Stacks’ mayoral opponent Harold Gray (a nice in-joke, for that’s the name of the artist who created the ANNIE comic strip), Guy sneers “I hear there’s a tape,” implying some sexual indiscretion.
Thus this ANNIE, full of politically-slanted machinations and spin, isn’t solely for kids. However, hopelessly immature adults might chuckle along with their four-year-olds when three consecutive utterly tasteless jokes about body wastes are unleashed.

Once Stacks blows a photo-op in which he’s supposed to show his sensitivity to the homeless, Guy knows he’s got to find something new. And those wheels are inadvertently set in motion when Annie and Stacks accidentally meet.

It happens after Annie sees two young lads chasing a dog (who more resembles a coyote) and takes off after them. Why Annie would make this run isn’t explained any more than ON THE TOWN allows us to understand why an arbitrary straphanger would endlessly pursue a sailor who tore an ad from a subway car. The boys don’t seem intent on terrorizing the animal, who doesn’t particularly seem to need rescuing.

Before Annie can reach either boys or beast, she runs across the street without noticing a speeding truck barreling toward her. The passing-by Stacks rescues her at the last second. A New Yorker captures the incident on his cell phone and the video goes viral.

“You’ve got to capitalize on this,” says Guy, who suggests that Stacks take in Annie for a few weeks as a public relations maneuver. He agrees, and however misguided that motivation, it’s a solid one for a billionaire’s inviting an orphan into his manse.

Many of us have questioned how, in the 1977 musical, Sandy magically appears at show’s end given that Annie has never once mentioned the dog to Warbucks. And if she had, how would he find him? Similarly, how Guy or anyone else on Stacks’ staff even knows the kid’s name is Annie – let along their finding her in just no time at all -- isn’t well-explained. Only later does the script establish that Stacks has sophisticated technology which he can use to locate Annie’s parents. Why not divulge this fact earlier to justify their finding Annie?

Once Stacks takes in the lass, the cynical Miss Hannigan predicts disaster. “The worst thing is to get a little taste of something good because it never lasts,” she warns Annie. Of course, as time goes on, Miss Hannigan will do her best to see that Annie experiences that disappointment.

At least this film has a more convincing way in how Annie and Sandy are reunited. Guy says “Dogs make women go ‘Awwwwww,’” so off to the pound they go to get one. There’s Sandy, whom Annie recognizes, and the dog is hers.

Annie gets workaholic Stacks to join her at a film where he’s surprised (and vociferous) at how much he’s enjoyed himself. She cooks for him, too, but if you think that the plot suggests that “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” think again. Stacks rids himself of Annie’s creation by feeding the stuff to Sandy.

But Guy feels that Annie will have best served his purpose if Stacks can find her parents. He bribes Miss Hannigan to give him the necessary inside information, so he’ll be able to pass off two ringers as Annie’s mom and dad. By this point, however, Stacks plans to adopt Annie -- but before he can tell the girl, Guy says he’s found her parents and DNA tests confirm they’re the real thing.

Alas, not having Will tell Annie his adoption plans in advance denies us the chance to learn more about our little heroine. In the stage show, we see that even the promise of a plush life won’t deter her from her mission to find her real parents.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan has an admirer: Lou, a convenience store owner who insists “Under all that bitterness, there’s a lady with a sweet heart.” The plot proves him right.

As in science-fiction films, the dog starts barking when the bad guys come in. But Annie is (too easily) led into losing faith in Stacks, although his sincerity (nicely conveyed by Foxx) soon convinces her that he’s on the up-and-up. Too bad the film ends with his much-too-sentimental and utterly unnecessary sacrifice of withdrawing from the race so that he can spend more time with his new family which includes Grace.

That isn’t, however, the biggest flaw to which I earlier alluded. Just in case you plan to see the film, I’ll keep the gaffe secret, but keep in mind that when a certain revelation comes at the 1:16 mark, you’ve already seen Annie as a student in a fifth-grade class and have witnessed her reading the letter that her parents had left with the authorities. ‘Nuff said.

One crime that will never be pinned on this ANNIE is that it’s “just a filmed stage play,” as movie critics love to lord over us when any Broadway property goes Hollywood. Cinematographer Michael Grady has his cameras show atypical angles and treat the eye to one arresting view after another. Uptown is realistically depicted, with bodegas that offer Lotto and 99-cent pizza holes-in-the-wall.

But why must this ANNIE be embarrassed to be a musical? When most everyone sings, the script often calls the singer on it. Case in point: Guy starts crooning “Easy Street” and Miss Hannigan actually asks in astonishment “You SINGIN’ to me?”

Worst of all, one scene takes us to a bar where a blue-collar barfly sees Stacks, Annie and Grace on TV doing “I Don’t Need Anything but You.” The working-stiff then says to his companions, “If he kept singin’ and dancin’ like that, he was never gonna be mayor.”

As Noah said to God in another Martin Charnin musical, “Must it be?”

         — Peter Filichia



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