Starring: Quevenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne
Directed by: Will Gluck (“Easy A,” “Friends With Benefits”)
Written by: Will Gluck (“Friends With Benefits”) and Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”)
My memories of the original big screen adaptation of “Annie” are fuzzy, mixed up with the McDonald’s commercials that interspersed the movie which my mom had recorded off of a TV broadcast in the mid-’80s for my sister and me. Sure, I know the songs “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life” like the back of my hand, but they also seem strangely related to that commercial where the girl has a piano recital and sings along to “Fur Elise” by talking about how much she loves McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes just the same. I guess what I’m saying is that, while that version of “Annie” was a big part of my childhood, it wasn’t important enough that my mind immediately turned to rage when I was made aware of director Will Gluck’s (“Easy A”) modern take on the venerable Broadway musical.
Swapping out the source material’s Depression-era setting for present-day New York, we find Annie (Quevenzhane Wallis) as an agreeably pleasant foster kid living with a quartet of other girls with Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, lost from the get-go as a broadly-drawn cartoon), a mean, drunken wannabe superstar who was kicked out of ’90s band C+C Music Factory just before their appearance on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show. Meanwhile germaphobic cell phone billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is running a losing campaign for mayor of New York City. With his trusty assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) and slimy campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) by his side, he runs into disaster after disaster on the campaign trail, sending his polling numbers lower and lower. It isn’t until a chance meeting where Stacks saves Annie from getting hit by a car that his fortunes turn around, thanks to a bystander catching his heroism on camera and uploading it to YouTube. Seeing how things start going his way after Annie arrived on the scene, Guy suggest Stacks take Annie in to live with him for the duration of the campaign, a scenario that Stacks isn’t 100 percent on board with.
While the modern-day setting makes sense for a film that wants to sell (and wink at) blatant product placement for contemporary things like Target, removing the story from the original ’30s setting causes problems almost immediately. Wallis is fine as Annie, but lacks the plucky, gee-whiz spirit the material really needs. Instead of a fire plug of energy who would turn a distant plutocrat’s world upside down with her shenanigans, this Annie is a sweet, caring, low-key little girl who seems like she would be a dream to have around (the only strange thing about her being that she prefers to sleep on the floor instead of the giant bed she’s given). As Stacks, Foxx is called upon to play a strange mix of bumbling dad, fussy weirdo, and smooth R&B singer, never finding a groove to carry him through the film. And while the signature songs like “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” are given relatively straightforward arrangements, the rest of the tunes are adapted into strange, stuttering hip-hop beats that all but destroy any entertainment value, especially anything requiring Cameron Diaz to sing. Yikes.
The most enjoyable moments in the film, sadly, come from a Gluck signature: a movie within the movie, this time a bombastic “Twilight” knock off called “MoonQuake Lake” starring Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher and Rihanna, directed by Hollywood golden boys Chris Miller and Phil Lord. The fact that I’d much rather watch that movie says a lot about “Annie.”