by Michael Sragow
CHARLIE MIGHT BRING A CINEMA SECRET WEAPON OUT OF HIDING
The ads for The Truth About Charlie proclaim, "From the director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia." But true fans of Jonathan Demme - the euphoric artist-entertainer who sends established forms soaring in new directions - will see this elating comic thriller as the latest work from the man who made Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
When Demme isn't tackling blockbuster novels like Lambs or grappling with social issues like AIDS in Philadelphia, he is a master of creative fusion, crafting brave and novel styles of funky elegance. For years, he was the secret weapon of American cinema. His movies unearthed neglected seeds of American renewal - and brought them to flower - without winning the accolades and revenue they deserved.
Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) blew in on the final gust of mainstream Hollywood's last creative renaissance and infused it with an infectious and uproarious grass-roots egalitarianism. Demme's Something Wild (1986) equaled David Lynch's Blue Velvet in its hairpin curves and twisted light and darkness, while speaking directly to yuppie self-disgust.
And Married to the Mob (1988) was a delicious Mafia farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer's gangland widow went through slapstick versions of the Soprano family's agony. These films and others, like Demme's brilliant 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, developed video and repertory after-lives that dwarfed their initial audiences.
But his timing may click with The Truth About Charlie, a wildly enjoyable remake of the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic Charade. He's brought a ravenous appetite for fresh sights, sounds and textures into his first overseas production.
Mark Wahlberg plays Joshua Peters, a mysterious American in Paris, and Thandie Newton plays Regina ("Reggie") Lambert, an irresistible Londoner whose husband, Charles, has left her stranded there. (In the 1963 version Grant was "Peter Joshua" and Hepburn "Regina Lambert.")
A heroine in Paris
From the moment Joshua and Regina discover that her scampish spouse was murdered, the film moves like a madcap urban steeplechase through the City of Lights. The contemporary Paris of The Truth About Charlie is a bubbling melting pot and an exhilarating playground that hasn't lost the gritty glamour of the early-'60s French New Wave.
Newton, known to arthouse audiences for her heart-stopping performance in Bertolucci's Besieged and to mass audiences for her Ingrid Bergman-esque co-starring turn in Mission: Impossible 2, embodies a rare live-action heroine who's unflappable and upbeat without making you sick.
Her Reggie is as sweet and decent as she is beautiful, and rarely in the dumps even after disillusion sets in. Demme may center this tale on the need for truth and honor. But the end effect of the perils of Reggie is to demonstrate the benefits of laughing through disaster.
Over lunch in Washington, D.C., Demme and Newton are ebullient and maybe just the tiniest bit antsy. Demme says, "Going into the summer, I thought we were dead. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding is now my favorite film in the world, because it's a humanist comedy and it's this enormous phenomenon. It could be a blip, but it appears that folks are turning away from extremes, and from super-duper special effects, and seeking some other fundamental appeal of movies.
"I hope Charlie can come roaring in on this, because we're an old-fashioned, people-oriented mystery, but dressed up in a very contemporary way."
Newton adds: "It's a film that a young college person would find and recommend - 'Hey, check out The Truth About Charlie' - and in doing so seem incredibly cool. Because it's intelligent, it's set in Paris, it's got that whole New Wave thing, it's crazed. It's super-hip."
And it boasts Charles Aznavour, the singing legend who became a movie legend in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, playing Cupid to Wahlberg and Newton as he croons soulfully about love. Will it make Aznavour the next Tony Bennett? "Let's face it," Newton says, "retro is so in now."
The whole project grew out of their joint excitement. For Demme, re-watching the old Charade and thinking of doing it with Newton were "one and the same experience." He asked Newton, a friend since she starred in Beloved (1998), to take a look at the picture without confessing that he had her in mind for Hepburn's part.
"I just loved watching it," she says. "It's effortlessly entertaining. At the same time it's got that really dated thing going as well, so when Jonathan talked about updating it, I thought, perfect! Those two artists [Grant and Hepburn] are so much of their time - such icons of that era - that you can plant the story in today's Paris and just keep going, going, going."
The story is still about the hero and heroine teaming up to find her slain husband's stash of money before it's snatched by a trio of comic menaces while a Yank intelligence agent keeps his own enigmatic watch on them. But the earlier movie focused on Grant and his need to gain Hepburn's trust. In his version, Demme says, with a laugh, the backbone is "Reggie lands amongst this group of go-for-broke mercenaries and former mercenaries, police investigators, undercover agents - all of them extremely devious or up to no good. And it seems that if they're exposed to Reggie long enough, they fall for her. It's as if they can't resist 'the light.' "
Demme is proud of the individual rapport that Reggie establishes with each of her allies and antagonists, including Tim Robbins' subtly hilarious "fuddy-duddy" from the American Embassy. For Demme, the only scene in which Newton's Reggie recalls Hepburn's comes near the start, when she returns to Paris from vacation and finds an emptied flat.
"It's just her calling names out," he says, "but if there's any moment that reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, it's that one. Little Reggie is someone so from her own other planet, and that's how I always felt about Hepburn!"
He never put the pressure on Newton that the team behind the remake of Sabrina put on Julia Ormond: to step into the previous star's shoes and be accepted as Hepburn reincarnate. Newton says, instead, "He was so keen for me to be inspired by myself - as only a friend could be, one who really knows you, knows what's under things."
Demme's ability to inspire and be inspired by his collaborators influenced the production from the first rap session to the final cut. Early on, Demme says, Paul Thomas Anderson, a pal and the writer-director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, "nominated himself to be the screenwriter."
The two went on a research jaunt to Paris. And between club-hopping and music-sampling and discussing Charade, Anderson suggested "slowing a lot of things down a tiny bit, to color the picture with a little feeling of fantasy."
Anderson soon left the project to write and direct Punch-Drunk Love, but that idea remains in The Truth About Charlie: much of the action unfolds in almost imperceptible slow motion. (Demme himself shares script credit with Steve Schmidt, Jessica Bendinger, and "Peter Joshua" - a pseudonym for original writer Peter Stone - while Anderson gets thanked in the end credits.)
Demme believed that one delightful paradox of the old Charade was that it didn't seem to exist in the same city as the New Wave that was actually exploding all around it. Demme and his longtime cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, decided to bring a neo-New Wave style to the filming of a script as tight and clever as the original.
Demme and Fujimoto strove to achieve a "decalculated look" - designing shots rapidly but specifically, nailing them, and then taking them apart. They were hoping to arrive at "the terrific dynamic and energy" and "pleasurable disorientation" of early Jean-Luc Godard films.
The two rules they held to were more like anti-rules: "We wouldn't worry about matching shots and we would never ever put the camera on a tripod or a foundation, not even for a static composition or one taking in a big wide angle."
The camera often rested on a half-inflated soccer ball. "We didn't want that shaky-cam feeling that can give people a headache," Demme says, "but instead that floaty feeling we get with our own eyes as we move through the day's events, always adjusting our sight."
This combination of improvisation and artisanry extended to Demme's collaboration with the actors. "The one note he gave to me," says Newton, "was don't rehearse. He expects actors to come prepared and responsible for our characters, which I really love."
Demme's method is straightforward: "I hire terrific actors, who will have far better ideas about the characters than I ever would, then shoot what would have been rehearsals. And we shoot quite a bit, until we feel, like, 'Wow - that was terrific!' After that, we shoot three or four more times. You're propelled by the confidence of having done something good, and now you can try something different." For Newton, this open-ended process "keeps the energy going."
The director revels in the ferment that results. For example, costume designer Catherine Leterrier came up with the dual masterstrokes of dressing Newton in Anna Karina's white raincoat from Godard's A Woman is a Woman (Karina herself makes a resonant cameo as a singer in a tango club) and cloaking Wahlberg in the big tweedy overcoats, turtlenecks, baggy slacks, fedoras and berets of Jean-Paul Belmondo in his prime.
"If it's amusing to see Mark in a beret or a fedora," Demme says, "that's good, because he is a fish out of water, a relatively unsophisticated man in a sophisticated part of the world."
'Isn't it fun to watch?'
Demme knew Wahlberg would never be the next Cary Grant, so he urged him to become the anti-Cary Grant. He has nothing but praise for Wahlberg as "a conscientious actor: he imposes definite guidelines on how he sees his character, which was lovely for me, because Joshua Peters is a sane guy trapped in multiple-personality problems. Mark focused on falling hopelessly in love with a girl and having to be, for a variety of reasons, buttoned up about it."
The movie has a multitude of moods; finding the right balance was a challenge.
"We filmed a lot of different movies: a much funnier movie, a much broodier movie, and one that was the absolutely depressing, tragic story of Reggie having picnics alone at home on the floor, sobbing about poor Charles, taking it down to an absolute film noir kind of place, with music to match," Demme says. "I had to say, wait - this isn't Charade, this isn't why we made this. The music helped us find our way a lot. We began to dismantle the dark, suspenseful music and start replacing it with more exotic, unexpected moods. We wanted a spirit of, 'Yeah, she's in a hell of a jam, but isn't it fun to watch it?' "
"It was another way of including the audience," says Newton - a great insight into Demme's work, because with the generosity of a Jean Renoir, he treats viewers as fellow fans and intimate pals. Demme has dotted the film with bows to movies past (catch the homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and interwoven remembrances of deceased loved ones, from a photo of Kenneth Utt, who produced several Demme pictures and died in 1994, to a song by his nephew, director Ted Demme (The Ref, TV's Action), who died during production.
Even if you don't get all the artistic references, let alone the personal ones, you sense the affirmative fervor behind them. Co-producer Nedia Armian recalls taking in a "cornershop" concert in Paris a month after Ted Demme died, with a band featuring a female sitar player.
"Toward the end of the set Jonathan felt that he was transported to another place and felt Teddy's spirit come to him. He felt Teddy's presence so vividly that he broke into tears. It was a release."
In its own lighthearted way, so is The Truth About Charlie. It gives off the glow of emotion-fueled entertainment.