Jonathan Demme is at it again. Last Friday, the profligate director who has been making hits, both funny and serious, for over two decades now, put out his first feature film since 1998’s on-and-off “Beloved.” In “The Truth About Charlie,” a remake of Stanley Donan’s 1963 “Charade,” Demme attempts to mix a frenetic, confusing plot with an ensemble international cast, and the always-daring camera work of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Demme’s frequent collaborator. The result is a brew that is surely beautiful but, sadly, hard to swallow.
The movie’s story revolves around the character of Regina Lambert, played by Thandie Newton, a Demme favorite. Coming back from a vacation to Paris, Lambert discovers her husband of three months — the eponymous Charlie, whom she actually wanted to divorce — lying dead in her empty apartment. Such a beginning, crammed with extensive back story, makes it hard to follow and enjoy the rest of the film. So when Regina discovers that not only did Charlie travel under several different aliases and with many forged passports, but that he stole a huge sum of money from an unknown someone, the audience is more cajoled than carried towards the “Truth.”
First, we meet up with a villainous menagerie of Charlie’s former associates who are hungry for his stolen cash and are certain that Regina has it. If that weren’t enough, Christine Boisson arrives on the scene, playing a Parisian detective whose prime suspect in the murder is Regina. An American investigator (Tim Robbins) advises her in the best way to go about finding the cash for herself. In her search she is constantly accompanied by Mark Wahlberg, the Cary Grant character in the original, who plays a wry confidant and suitor. Trailed by these men, Regina wanders rather than runs through the plot’s many pit-falls and dramatic cliches.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in Demme’s new film is an insurmountable one from the start: the original appeal of “Charade” was the sizzling dynamic between Grant and the original Regina, Audrey Hepburn. The plot was therefore superfluous. Here, although Newton is an accomplished actress, no such chemistry or celebrity can overcome the confused and confusing details of the tale. Perhaps because of this vacuum at the center of his movie, Demme shifts emphasis onto his strong supporting cast. Demme elicits more intriguing performances out of the unflagging Boisson and the creepy, threatening collection of Charlie’s ex-buddies who hound Regina, than he does out of Wahlberg and Robbins.
But Demme’s greatest cinematic trick, and the one which makes “The Truth About Charlie” a worthwhile movie to see, is his attempt to create a new interpretation of French New Wave moviemaking in the hometown of that style — 1960s Paris. Demme infuses “Charlie” with a riveting, organic movement evoked by choppy hand-held cameras and fast-paced panning. Faces appear and disappear, bodies cut in and out of the frame; the wild world of Paris spins before us, as Regina frantically searches for the truth. With frequent allusions to Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” a New Wave jewel, Demme creates a rich visual palette that captures us and leads us into Regina’s world gone awry.
Nevertheless, that world is too mixed up for us to live in very long. Demme fails to reconcile the movie’s funny, tender, and dramatic moments. The seemingly stilted workings of a modern-day thriller overwhelm the director’s cinematic vision. At the end of the film, as Wahlberg and Newton stand in the middle of a rain-soaked, gun-drawn showdown, we are neither sure of how they got there, nor whether we should even care.