The Truth About Charlie (2002) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content/nudity
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins, Joong-Hoon Park, Ted Levine
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Jonathan Demme, Steve Schmidt, Peter Stone, Jessica Bendinger

Review published October 26, 2002

I've often referred to movies as "half-baked" but it's a rare instance when I find one that I can label as "over-cooked."  The Truth About Charlie is one of those instances.  It's actually quite a shame because director Jonathan Demme clearly has a good time with the material, making the types of fun films he used to be known for before The Silence of the Lambs, namely Something Wild and Married to the Mob.   Those films featured off-beat comedy played out as drama, with a generous helping of style and world music to add to the flavor.  The Truth About Charlie has those elements, and had it stuck to that which Demme has proven he can do well, it probably would have been the type of breezy crime caper that Charade, which this is a remake of, had been. 

Charade was director Stanley Donen's attempt to create a Hitchcockian comedy/suspense film, similar to North by Northwest, and both starred Cary Grant.  Jonathan Demme has already made his own homage to Hitchcock with 1979's The Last Embrace, and knows if he did the same thing with The Truth About Charlie he would have been redundant twice over. 

Demme throws a curveball, and crafts it into an homage to the French New Wave cinema of the 50s and 60s, with tips of the hat to directors like Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer), all of whom were known for toying with the convention of cinema.  They would take very conventional plots and fill them with unique camera angles, story elements, and music, and as such, they developed a strong following for those who love movies as an art-form and not just a way to tell a story.  They championed the auteur theory, proclaiming the director as the real artist, instead of the producer or studio like Hollywood liked to tout in those days.  They also heralded Hitchcock as an auteur who mastered the art of cinema whereas he was just known as an entertainment director before.  Truffaut and Chabrol in particular, like Donen did with Charade, made their own homages to Hitchcock with The Bride Wore Black (of which the ending to The Truth About Charlie is an homage to) and many others. 

Therein lies the main problem with The Truth About Charlie, and one which will completely lose the majority of audiences unfamiliar with all of these artists works.  Charlei is an homage to a film that is already an homage, but switches its own homage to films created by others whose works themselves were homages.  By doing so, Demme made film to celebrate others who celebrate films, and the plot and characters of Charlie take a backseat to what relates to a giant circle jerk for those who love art cinema.  Instead of a story, we have an exercise in technique and allusions so out of place, they feel like they are forced into the storyline artificially, and serve to make an already complicated plot even more hard to follow.

I suppose now that I mention the convoluted plot, it's time to try to explain what exactly it is.  Thandie Newton (Mission Impossible 2, Shade) plays Regina Lampert, a young woman living in Paris and for a short time has been married to the Charlie of the title.  Well, she HAD been married, as Charlie has been murdered while traveling by train, and when she comes home to find their apartment has been ransacked, she is informed by the police about six million dollars that is missing and is likely to have been the reason for Charlie's demise...and she can expect whoever did this will be after her to get it.  Trouble is, the money is no where to be found, and nothing in her possession seems to be worth enough for Charlie to have hidden it, but the trio of goons that follow her every move aren't going to give up easily.  She runs into another young man, an American named Joshua Peters (Wahlberg, Rock Star), who informally becomes her protector.  But is he really a new potential love interest or is he also interested in the money for himself?

While The Truth About Charlie is extremely different in style to Charade, the plot is remarkably true to the original with the exception of the overly complicated climax.  The changes introduced near the end are actually the first true missteps of the film, but so poorly executed and acted, that they come close to undoing any good thing Demme had built up with such lavish care up to that point.  Had they stayed with the ending of the original Charade, which was just as farfetched but played out so much better, The Truth About Charlie would probably be seen as a marvelously hip remix for a classic film, and probably a cult favorite among many a film buff.  However, with poor casting involved, especially with a rather uncharismatic Mark Wahlberg as the leading man and Tim Robbins (Antitrust, High Fidelity) in what could possibly be the worst performance of his career, the tapestry of beautiful sights and sounds that Demme so lovingly crafts becomes unraveled, broken to the point where this isn't just a mere misfire, it's a tragic loss of a potential masterwork.

Although I'm not scoring The Truth About Charlie very high because of the elements that make it a flawed endeavor, I still have to give Demme a lot of credit for at least trying to make a great film.  Truly, the claustrophobic feel and flashy camerawork are a marvel to behold, breathtakingly shot by veteran cinematographer Tak Fujimoto makes the real Paris look every bit as vibrant and mesmerizing as the fake one of Moulin Rouge!.  While Wahlberg is no Cary Grant, Thandie Newton is amazingly as perfect for the role as the great Audrey Hepburn was, exhibiting almost the same amount of charm and elegance required.  Sadly, these elements are wasted in a confusing plot and superficial characters.

The Truth About Charlie is worth a look for those who are intimately familiar with the works of the French new wave directors and those who enjoy terrific cinematography and stylish directing more than airtight plotting and good acting.  It's also better if you haven't seen the original Charade, as the plot is too close to offer any real thrills, and the reason you enjoyed the film so much, i.e. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn together, are missing here.  Yet, as far from satisfying as the end result may be, what is done well is so good that The Truth About Charlie is probably the best bad film I've seen this year, a genuine guilty pleasure.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo