What’s the Fuss About Remakes? The Truth About Charlie Is a Lark

Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie , from a screenplay by Mr. Demme, Steve Schmidt and Jessica Bendinger, has been widely panned for presuming to remake Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), from a screenplay by Peter Stone, with Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton in the roles originally played by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, I was recently interviewed by a movie reporter, who asked me bluntly why “Hollywood” kept remaking old classics with results as dismal as The Truth About Charlie . I hadn’t seen Mr. Demme’s alleged sacrilege when I was asked this question, but it started me thinking about the subject of remakes, about which I know two or three things.

First of all, there is no such thing as a “remake.” Plots and dialogue can be recycled ad infinitum, ad nauseam, but the time machine is inexorable. New actors or older versions of the same actors will create an entirely new work. To complain about remakes in the movies is almost the equivalent of calling every new stage production of Hamlet a needless remake of the original performance of the play at the Globe Theatre. Almost, but not quite. In the theater, recycled plays are called revivals, never remakes. “Revival” suggests a rebirth with new life. But one cannot say that Mr. Demme and his collaborators have revived Charade , not unless they can resurrect Grant and Hepburn as they appeared in 1964. In movies, unlike plays, the actors stick to the work like glue and can never be dislodged. Each film is an existential fact and can never be duplicated.

Why, then, did Mr. Demme choose to recycle a nearly 40-year-old comic melodrama, even with Mr. Stone’s covert collaboration on the script? From all indications in the film, as well as some production stories, Mr. Demme saw an opportunity for a lark in Paris that, a city that had changed enormously in the past 40 years, especially from the touristy Paris of Hollywood movies. Also, the director had worked with Ms. Newton in Beloved and saw in her some of Hepburn’s gamine charm. Rumor has it that Mr. Demme originally wanted to cast her opposite Will Smith, thus transforming an all-white love team in the original to an all-black love team in the remake. Curiously, he would have been on safer ground with the latter casting in the bad old days of the Production Code than he would have been with the interracial coupling he finally chose for The Truth About Charlie .

Still, why should people be so outraged by an alleged desecration of a 38-year-old movie? Are people’s memories really that good, or is it because they can refresh them any night of the week with a convenient VHS videocassette or a DVD? It wasn’t that way in the 30′s and 40′s, before television and so many other technological advances in the facilitation of universal voyeurism. In those comparatively deprived days, A-movies opened, ran a few weeks, and then disappeared from public view. B-movies had an even shorter life span. Back then, plots were recycled every five or six years, with no one being the wiser. When John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon surfaced in 1941 to great acclaim, hardly anyone noticed that the Dashiell Hammett novel had been made into a movie twice before, once a decade earlier in a racier pre-Code version.

But how much of a classic is the original Charade , after all? Some critics at the time dismissed it as Hitchcock lite, but it’s more fondly remembered by many people than perhaps it should be.

Grant was used much better in Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959), as was Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Together in Charade they were a bit of an odd couple, she making him appear a bit fey in his weird shower scene with the suit on, and he making her seem a bit shrill. Mr. Donen and Mr. Stone did score a stylistic coup with the final confrontation, which involved a hysterically suspicious Hepburn, a desperately reassuring Grant, and a marvelously avuncular Walter Matthau as the surprise villain.

But once the mousetrap of surprise has been snapped shut in the Charade plot, it can’t be pried loose again for The Truth About Charlie , even with the secret complicity of then-and-now screenwriter Peter Stone (billed in the remake as Peter Joshua). Mr. Demme and his associate meander to their climax with a sub-Tarantino flourishing of guns from all directions, with none of them being fired. Yet what the nasty premises of the Charade plot demand is a brutal efficiency in disposing of the prime evildoer, and on this occasion, as on so many others in his career, Mr. Demme is neither brutal nor efficient. What he gives us instead is an affectionate hommage to Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and the rest of the French New Wave, complete with an edifice named the Hotel Langlois in honor of Henri Langlois, the legendary mentor of the French Cinematheque-which gave birth to Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs,” and the disquisitions of the late, great Andre Bazin on Greg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography in the works of Orson Welles and William Wyler. I worked briefly for Langlois in 1961 during the year in Paris that changed my life forever, and like Mr. Demme, I knew and admired Truffaut and still consider Shoot the Piano Playe r (1960) with Charles Aznavour to be Truffaut’s finest film. Hence, I appreciated the prominent place the aged Mr. Aznavour occupies in Mr. Demme’s film, and the caressing gesture of Mr. Demme’s camera over Truffaut’s gravestone-not to mention the dedication of the film to the late Ted Demme and Marshall Lewis, one of the two guys in the back of the Bleecker Street Cinema (the other was Rudi Franchi) with whom I spent many convivial hours of Francophilia and cinephilia. After all that, how can I pretend to be objective about Mr. Demme’s labor of love? But I shall try, though I do feel that he hasn’t gotten enough credit for walking away from the Silence of the Lambs franchise without milking it dry for years and years of steady paydays. In my opinion, sequelitis is a more pernicious virus of the motion-picture industry than the illusory virus of remakes.

Unfortunately, The Truth About Charlie fails to work in terms of genre expectations for the paying customers who walk in from the street, as opposed to us privileged cineastes who can ooh and aah at the cameo glimpses of such icons as Anna Karina, Magali Noel and Agnes Varda. Truth to tell, the mass of moviegoers much prefer plot to atmosphere, and Mr. Demme has overwhelmed his plot with excessive eccentricities that emerge from a polyglot Paris which too often intrudes on the suspension of disbelief required for the principals, caught as they are in the swirl of teeming mob scenes.

Yet Mr. Demme has remained true to his own eccentricity in liking the most outlandish people unconditionally in such charmingly quirky pieces as Citizen’s Band (1977), Last Embrace (1979), Melvin and Howard (1980), Something Wild (1986), Philadelphia (1993) and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In between narrative-film assignments, he has kept his hand in with such nonfiction projects as the celebrated music documentary Stop Making Sense (1984) with the Talking Heads, Swimming to Cambodia (1987) with Spalding Gray, Haiti: Dreams of Democracy (1987), Cousin Bobby (1992), Storefront Hitchcock (1998) and, as a TV producer, Mandela (1996)-attesting to his wide interests and engagements in the real world.

Consequently, it is not so much a question of Mr. Demme not being worthy of Charade , but of Charade , with its Donen-and-Stone gleeful ghoulishness, not being right for the ultra-civilized, if not ultra-squeamish, Mr. Demme. One can see that Mr. Demme’s heart skips a beat whenever Ms. Newton glides into view, almost stumbles and quickly rights herself with a quasi-balletic grace. Mr. Wahlberg, sadly, lacks even the minimal charisma of a Matt Damon, much less the comparative smoothness of a George Clooney. The latter is as close as we are going to get these days to the Cary Grant mystique, which is another reason why movies like Charade should never be recycled; they should be left in the library, to be appreciated for their very marginal virtues and graces.

So there we have it: The Truth About Charlie , intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, was finally executed (if not originally conceived) as a comic parody of Charade in the midst of Mr. Demme’s long-overdue love letter to the city of Paris, and to the French civilization that gives it its enduring sparkle. The Truth About Charlie may not be and should not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at the end of it, I felt a guilty affection for all its participants. So sue me for dereliction of the critic’s duty to serve as a completely reliable taste consultant, but that is one of the lingering curses of auterism.

Cheating Hearts, Then and Now

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water , from a screenplay by Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Anita Shreve, is the first of Ms. Bigelow’s six films-including The Loveless , her directorial debut in 1982, co-directed with Monty Montgomery-to qualify even remotely as a chick flick. Indeed, Ms. Bigelow has been the least feminine and feminist of all women directors, with the possible exception of Leni Riefenstahl and Lina Wertmüller. Ms. Bigelow has declared on several occasions that she believes implicitly in the cinematic purity of the action ethos. It follows that she is no stranger to violence and gunplay, generally seen and practiced from a male viewpoint, beginning in The Loveless , which featured a bunch of bikers in a small town, taking off from where Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin left off in The Wild One (1953).

Then came Near Dark (1987), a strikingly imaginative vampire movie, followed by Blue Steel (1990), in which policewoman Jamie Lee Curtis and firearms freak Ron Silver duel to the death in one of the most violent and anarchic manifestations of the American gun culture ever put on film. Point Break (1991) was a bizarre melodrama of treachery and betrayal in a world of surfers and skydivers, while Strange Days (1995) provided a paranoid glimpse into the future, and K:19 The Widowmaker (2002), with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson cast as rival Russian submarine commanders, struggled for plausibility.

Thus nothing in Ms. Bigelow’s oeuvre has prepared us for such an essentially feminine project as The Weight of Water , with its two repressed and introverted female protagonists stranded in two different centuries, with disastrous consequences for those nearest and dearest to them. Ms. Shreve equips both characters in her novel with extensive inner monologues that propel the two stories to their catastrophic climaxes.

Jean (Catherine McCormack), the contemporary protagonist, is a photographer working on a magazine story about an unsolved (real-life) murder case on Smuttynose Island, one of the nine islands that make up the Isles of Shoals, off the New Hampshire coast. The film was actually shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and its environs, and the physically attuned Ms. Bigelow drenches the viewer with roaring surf and salt spray on the screen in the lengthy sailboat sequences. The boat is emotionally congested, with Jean and her ever-present camera; Thomas (Sean Penn), her poet husband, quoting lines for every occasion; his brother Rich (Josh Lucas), who owns the sailboat; and Rich’s newest girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). Jean and Thomas are having marital problems, and have taken the trip with Rich and Adaline in an attempt to iron them out. Instead, Jean begins to suspect that Thomas is having an affair with Adaline, and at the same time realizes that she is becoming attracted to Rich.

Meanwhile, a second narrative unfolds from the available records and testimony of the 1873 murder trial. Maren Hontvedt, a married woman with unfulfilled raging passions that parallel Jean’s in the present, murders her sister Karen (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and sister-in-law Anethe (Vinessa Shaw), and falsely accuses an innocent but disreputable farm worker, Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds), who is convicted and executed based on her testimony. The murders occur while Maren’s husband, Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen), and Anethe’s husband, John Hontvedt (Ulrich Thomas), are away from the island.

Ms. Bigelow and her screenwriters have made some crucial changes from the book, for reasons they must have deemed appropriate. But the film has a big problem: The thunderous physicality of Ms. Bigelow’s mise en scène seems to be trying to suggest an eruption of feelings for which no adequately articulated dialogue has been provided. The result is that the doubts and hesitations of the contemporary story are less interestingly decisive than the period melodrama, which explodes unambiguously on the screen. It’s but the latest example of double-entry storytelling in which the visceral past is more exciting than the cerebral present.

Ms. Bigelow has made an ambitious and undeniably sincere effort to translate a brooding literary work into a pulsatingly pictorial experience, but somewhere along the way she lost the emotional continuum of the two stories. In old-fashioned screenwriting parlance, Ms. Shreve’s novel proved too difficult a text to “lick,” despite the efforts of a first-rate cast.