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Something Was Missing

Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures

Annie (2014)

The 1982 “Annie” was my first experience in the cinema. I thought the whole experience was wonderful. Basically I was Annie: I was a little girl, mistreated by the adults in her life, who deserved to be plucked from nothing and set up in the big time. I wanted red hair; I wanted the red dress; I wanted a smelly old dog. And at the big finale — when Annie is chased up the crane and has to be rescued by the Sikh bodyguard — I was so frightened that I had to be removed from the theater in screaming and crying disgrace. We then got the movie on Betamax and I watched it approximately a billion times before I turned 10 years old, without any further disgracing, as I believe. Although I have not seen the original for some time, “Annie,” as was, remains one of the cleverest movies aimed at little girls, who are natural hams perfectly happy to believe that their parents/guardians are big meanies and a better life is waiting for them, if only someone would see how special they are. As a child, the original political satire of the comic strip on which all is based was utterly lost on me. But I never did understand why, when it was obvious Daddy Warbucks had the ability to take all of them on, only Annie was adopted.

The new “Annie,” directed by Will Gluck, time-shifts the story to right now while keeping many of the original elements almost the same. Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) now lives in the overcrowded apartment of her alcoholic foster mother Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) in Harlem. Safely in midtown, cell-phone billionaire William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is running for mayor on a platform of “never drop a citizen” (as if citizens were calls) while definitively not being a man of the people. One day he saves Annie from a traffic accident; the resulting viral video and bump in the poll numbers causes his chief-of-staff Guy (Bobby Cannavale, who has finally made the big time and visibly enjoys every second) propose that he foster Annie to ensure he wins the election. Stacks’ lonely assistant Grace (Rose Byrne, who is quietly carving herself one of the most interesting career paths in modern Hollywood) is of course roped in to do the practical stuff, as she is a woman. And of course spoilers follow: Kids, go play outside or something!

The movie starts very strong, with the foster girls (Amanda Troya, Eden Duncan-Smith, Nicolette Pierini and Zoe Margaret Colletti) performing “Maybe” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” with clever, nonstagey choreography including tasks like as swiffering the hallway and sorting the recycling. But shortly “Annie” the film loses its way, mainly in that that the emotional arc of the film no longer belongs to Annie. Ms. Wallis is a stone-cold star who could hustle Darth Vader himself into doing what she wanted. But her acceptance that Stacks will be the father she needs — even if he’s not her birth parents — is no longer the emotional core.

Instead the film’s emotional journey is split into three parts: The first one is Annie’s, which by the end of the movie manages to be almost completely, and surprisingly, sidelined. Ms. Wallis is given the chance to pout, preen, play and also cook, but we don't get very far inside her head or learn much about the coping techniques she has managed through seven years in foster care. The second journey is whether Miss Hannigan, who has never gotten over some very minor musical success in the early ’90s, will stop being such a bitch and learn to accept the love of bodega owner Lou (David Zayas). But the film's most important story is whether Stacks will learn that business isn’t everything and having people close to you is. Will he open his grinchy heart, learn to cry on television because of a little girl and then kiss a white woman? Mr. Foxx is charming and brave in an uninteresting role, while Ms. Diaz takes a part conceived as a comedic monster and gives her self-pity and pathos, who cares that she regrets her little taste of success since she can never go back to that. The movie is supposed to be about Annie. We’re supposed to care about Annie.

The fault here is with the movie’s writers, Mr. Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna; and the army of producers behind it, which includes Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z. It feels like they were so concerned about bringing in big stars for the adult parts that they forgot to center the story around their heroine. It's not all bad; the movie-within-a-movie, “Moon Quake Lake,” is one of the funnier inside jokes Hollywood has allowed itself lately. And while it’s rare these days to see a movie so concerned with fleshing out the smaller roles — Stephanie Kurtzuba (who was phenomenal in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) as the kleptomaniac social worker is a special treat — this is not enough: especially when the movie's new songs are pretty boring.

The problem circles back to the movie's fundamental flaw — which is the flaw of the source material: Why can't Warbucks/Stacks take in all the girls, instead of only Annie? It seems to be a flaw of the American psyche. If one person is special and needs exceptional help, someone steps up to the plate and provides it. But if four other ordinary girls need help, they are left to sneak back into their apartment up the fire escape while a limousine watches below. If one child has fallen through the system and cannot read, the focus is on providing her a tutor. Why does Stacks quit politics to focus on his new daughter, instead of staying in politics and ensuring that no citizen is dropped — no child is left behind, even — and the schools for all of New York's children are actually worth a damn? The ending actually goes full “Zoolander,” with a center opened to help kids who can’t read good, but it’s a branded, for-profit operation. And it’s done with a straight face.

The mixed messages of the movie are exhausting. One of the characters actually says, “Don't fear the government; fear the cellphone companies,” but then Annie musters all of Stacks’ resources to track everyone in New York City with her surname in an attempt to find her parents. The best romantic advice the movie has to offer is that, to attract the attention of a boy you like, you should punch him in the face — which is problematic to say the least. The film opens with Annie giving an interactive school report that explains Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in a quick song-and-dance routine, but then ends with a ridiculous display of capitalism throwing its money in the air. The movie’s motto is “Luck is for suckers,” but it was only a series of coincidences that threw Annie into Stacks’ path. If Annie is the only special child out there, what hope is there for the little girls in the cinema who are waiting for their real lives to start?


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