Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts on Annie 2014

The following post contains major plot spoilers for the 2014 film Annie.

Tracie Thoms is giving my favorite performance in Annie2014. She’s given no name, though her stage equivalent would be Lily St. Regis.  She’s been hired to pose as Annie’s mother. When she looks at Annie she doesn’t clutch her or start sobbing. She offers a heartfelt smile and holds out a broken locket. She asks “is it a match?” and Annie obediently pulls out her own locket to prove she’s the right little girl. She is silent and submissive upon meeting Annie’s guardian Will Stacks (aka Daddy Warbucks). In a film full of broad, cartoon-ish performances, Tracie keeps her cards to her chest. When she confronts Annie in a locked, speeding car, the scene is terrifying.  She’s been instructed by Stacks’ henchmen to “hold on to Annie” till Stacks' mayoral campaign is over then “dump her in the system.” Does the system mean a group home or the Hudson River? Annie’s lucky she never has to find out.

What works?
  • The premise. A multicultural Annie is not an inherently bad idea and there are moments where you see why people signed on.
  • The leads. Quvenzhan√© Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne have charm and chemistry.
  • The opening scenes. The Overture, Maybe, Hard Knock Life and Tomorrow are inventively staged. This stretch is faithful to the source material and shows you can create something new while honoring something old.
  • Tracie Thoms and Dorian Missick as Annie’s fake parents. The stakes are higher for them than anyone else.

What doesn't work
  • Miss Hannigan. Comedy benefits from context. Is Miss Hannigan a wounded soul in a gritty real world setting? Or a grotesque in a cartoon world? One moment she’s Bad Teacher screaming and vamping. Then she’s Glee’s Sue Sylvester; deadpan snarking, breaking the fourth wall and showing flashes of vulnerability. No one else in the film knows how to respond to her so they leave her in a vacuum.  
  • Composite Characters. The Russian Social worker is part Grace, part Hannigan, but the film already has a Grace and a Hannigan. Bobby Cannavale, David Zayas and Dorian Missick are each playing different aspects of the character of Rooster. All of them look uncomfortable.  
  • Celebrity Cameos. Speaking of folks who don’t belong here.
  • Gross Out Humor. Oliver Stacksbucks tells a poop joke and performs multiple spit takes. I didn’t like this stuff when I was a kid and don’t like it now. Your mileage may vary.

What’s in between
  • The Politics. Annie praises hard work but loves getting free stuff. Stacks claims he built his cell phone empire through hard work… as opposed to sweat shop labor and conflict minerals.  Telephone surveillance is bad… unless you use it to outwit your kidnappers. Stacks wants to help the poor, except the ones he thinks are gross. Is this movie Harold Gray conservative or FDR liberal? It never decides and the whiplash is painful.
  • The Annie/Stacks Relationship. Stacks is a prissy germ-a-phobe who hired a kid for P.R. Annie knows she’s  being used (“What’s the hustle?”) and is determined to grab as much free swag from his penthouse and premiere parties as she can. She sings “Opportunity” to his campaign donors with the steely determination of Eva Peron. Then she’s asked to read a speech to the crowd about how great Stacks is. She can’t do it. She runs off the stage in tears.
  • “This is it!” I thought. “This is where she’ll realize how cynical this movie has been and that Stacks has made her a whore!” But that’s not quite it. Instead *** major spoiler *** she confesses to Stacks that she can’t read. This shocks him to the core and inspires his first feelings of responsibility for her future. Then there’s a kidnapping plot and a quick reconciliation that I didn’t quite buy. The darker implications of their relationship are left unresolved. To be fair I find this relationship creepy on stage too.
  • The New Songs. Moonquake Lake, Opportunity, Who Am I and The City’s Yours have not made this Broadway baby a fan of Sia and Kirstin’s pop stylings. Will their pop fans enjoy being introduced to synth remixed show tunes? Which leads to the biggest un answered question.
  • Who is the audience for this movie? It's clearly not show tune lovers. Will a new generation of little girls gush over Annie’s materialism? Or be touched by it’s last minute, kinda-sorta change of heart? Or will this movie be as forgotten as  1995’s Annie:A Royal Adventure?

The Little Orphan Annie comic strips ran for 80 years putting Annie in peril. She may have been adopted by a billionaire but a constant stream of thieves and gangsters kept her from ever seeing a happy ending. When we last see Tracie Thoms she’s being tackled to the ground by Stacks’bodyguard. What’s happening to her while Annie and Stacks cavort to “I Don’t Need Anything But You?” No doubt Stacks will “dump her in the system.”   

Still, I liked it better than Oliver &Company. 

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