The Truth About Charlie (Universal) is Jonathan Demme’s stab at a 21st-century French New Wave picture. It’s supercharged hipster filmmaking, with an unmoored, dancing, hand-held camera that lingers over nearly every face in every frame. Demme has chosen as his vehicle the old Stanley Donen/Peter Stone romantic mystery Charade (1963), notable chiefly for the way in which Audrey Hepburn draped herself over Cary Grant in his last gasp of Cary Grant-ness. In interviews, the director has respectfully distanced himself from the Grant-Hepburn original. The point of the remake, he has said, is to showcase both the lustrous Thandie Newton (who played the androidlike Ghost of Slavery Past in his Beloved ) and the new, multicultural Paris. And so the screen teems with colorful faces while the soundtrack abounds with North African-inflected pop songs—but then, everything in this picture either teems or abounds. You get exotic faces, exotic instruments like the oud (an Arabic lute), and exotic angles on familiar landmarks. It’s a giant, pulsing, flea-market of a movie.
I wish it were as much fun as its prospectus. The truth is that The Truth About Charlie gets increasingly tiresome. Demme likes his characters (and his actors) a lot more than the audience does. The strenuous pacing is part of the problem, with characters and red herrings and exposition trotted out at such a clip that we have no time to absorb anything—or even understand why we’re supposed to. And Demme—who has gravitated to heavier, more virtuous projects since his last comedy, Married to the Mob (1988)—is a little rusty. A stylized sequence that’s probably closest to his heart—Anna Karina bellows a lyric called “Deception” while the heroine (Newton) tangos with each red herring in turn—is also the most grating. By the end, no one cares who murdered Reggie’s husband or where his millions are stashed. There’s a private, home-movie quality to The Truth About Charlie that begins to seem cloyingly insular. Has his aesthetic become too indulgent—and, for that matter, too socially responsible—to deliver a good thriller?
As “Commandant Dominique,” Christine Boisson is a commanding (and sexy) dominatrix indeed; and Joong-Hoon Park has a magnetic moment or two as one of sundry glowering lurkers. But I wish Demme’s pedestal to Newton had been less rickety. She’s a disarmingly impudent little minx with a laughing delivery and a beautiful body, but she carries too much dead narrative weight. And she has to carry Mark Wahlberg, too. When Wahlberg plays slightly dim, blue-collar characters, he has a sweetness and vulnerability; but he’s too plodding to play a leading man with tantalizing wiles. You know a movie’s in trouble when its romantic hero makes you think that Matt Damon would have been a more colorful choice.
If The Truth About Charlie is too bustling for its own good, Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing (MGM/UA) is stripped down to pure misery. Set in a low-income housing project in Southeast London, the movie tracks the fortunes (or lack thereof) of three families struggling with depression, accidental pregnancy, alcoholism, and obesity—all of which might be interpreted as the soul-deadening consequences of capitalism’s indifference, although no one makes that point explicitly. Most of the two-hour running time is spent with the family of Lesley Manville, as a determinedly upbeat supermarket checker, and Timothy Spall, as a taxi driver so forlorn that, despite his impoverishment, he barely seems to want to take his customers’ money. The movie opens with their glum, overweight daughter (Alison Garland) mopping the floor of a retirement home for several minutes—a more exciting time than she has at home, where her overweight brother (James Corden) lies on the couch all day and watches television. Next door, a young woman clings in spite of everything to a drunken, almost helplessly sadistic boyfriend, who at his most sensitive says things like, “Don’ f-in’ look at me, I’ll f-in’ kill ya, ya c–t.” At the end of every scene, the minor-key chamber music starts up again, wearily dragging us to the next hopeless episode.
Leigh’s movies all tend to start at a crawl, but they usually ensnare you in their complicated network of longings and antipathies: It’s amazing how often a seemingly disparate group of characters (fashioned with the personality of each actor in mind) can gel into a microcosm of (capitalist) society. All or Nothing has an unusually elegant look for Leigh (the giant, faceless apartment complex anchors the images), and there are some blessedly transcendent moments midway through. But just as the movie begins to break free of its sorrow-swamped moorings, the scenes grow longer, more maudlin, and more stage-bound. My wife, normally the most humanistic of liberals, complained of too many depressed fat people staring into the void. Doubtless her tolerance has been used up by years of living with a depressed fat person whose chief activity is staring into the void—but she had a point. She also said the movie seemed like a documentary, and I couldn’t disagree more: When you scrub life of all sensation (unless you count numbness as a sensation), you are distorting it as thoroughly as the most mindlessly upbeat Disney animator.
Manville, the director’s wife, brings a startling amount of variety to what might have been a dreary role. But Spall—normally the biggest asset in whatever picture he’s in—settles into monotony: His fixed expression of (mouth-breathing) melancholy might have worked in a busier context—say, TheHunchback of Notre Dame—but I found it inadvertently campy. That Cockney Olive Oyl Ruth Sheen was the best thing about High Hopes (1988), and as the mother of the bereft, pregnant teen, she’s the best thing here, too. She can deliver the line “I’ll make you a cappatea” like the tenderest mercy that a godless universe has to offer.
For Frida (Miramax), her new biographical movie about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, the director Julie Taymor has a thrilling visual idea and a crippling visual idea. It’s the same idea: to treat Frida as a figure in a Frida Kahlo painting. Thanks to some of the most exquisite special effects you’ll ever see, flat paintings suddenly acquire three dimensions, and three-dimensional people freeze and become part of a larger canvas.
If you want rich folk-art colors, brainy spectacle, and breezy soap opera, then Frida is the biopic for you. Taymor has taken a leap as a filmmaker from her first feature, Titus (1999), which was sensational but stylistically all over the map (with acting to match). Frida is more fluid and confident. If you want to know why Frida Kahlo is more than a painter—she’s an icon, a mass-culture phenomenon, a cottage industry—look no further: Taymor prints the legend. After the bus crash that nearly ended the young Kahlo’s life, Taymor serves up a sacred/ghastly image of the young woman (played by Salma Hayek) splayed out, impaled, covered in bright red blood and gold (meant for a cathedral ceiling). Frida wakes to a chilling Day of the Dead skeleton show of doctors and nurses, animated by the great film surrealists the Brothers Quay. Her wedding ceremony to the muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) is just as Kahlo painted it, and when she’s stricken over the breakup of their marriage (after she has caught Rivera having sex with her sister), the image is from her Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair. Again and again the seminal events in Frida’s life are seen through the prism of her artistry.
Kahlo herself made it difficult to separate them. Although she’s grouped with the Surrealists—Dalí, Magritte, Miró, Picasso—she wasn’t happy with that label. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t,” she once said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my reality.” That’s a little dodgy. All Surrealists—all Expressionists, even a few Cubists, for that matter—use extreme stylization to portray the world as they think it really is, not as it appears. But Kahlo had broken with the Surrealists for political reasons, and she was eager to claim her Self as the core of her aesthetic. (No wonder people like Madonna spend millions to own her paintings.)
What’s wrong with that? Only that life and art are not the same, and making them bleed so thoroughly into each other—as Taymor does—has a way of trivializing the artistic process. Kahlo was enormously canny and resourceful in taking traditional folk art and miracle paintings known as retablos and transforming them into mythic visions of her own physical pain and emotional dislocation. Here, those visions seem to leap fully formed from her imagination. When she appears in wildly colorful Mexican garb, with heavy necklaces, with her braids wrapped around her head like a helmet, with her mustache slightly highlighted and eyebrows defiantly conjoined, it’s as if she was born that way. In Frida, we’re given no insight into the most astounding creation of Kahlo’s life: Frida Kahlo, feminist icon.
Salma Hayek has such a lithe and wriggly little body and is so revved up and raring to go that she doesn’t convey much of the ugly physical paralysis of Frida’s life; and there’s something twittery about her voice that reminds me of Penélope Cruz. But she’s likably game. Even better is Molina, who brings a lightness to the fat Rivera; Molina creates a figure of titanic irresponsibility, a creature of impulse with no obligation to reconcile his political, personal, and aesthetic ideals. But the movie grows ever more sketchy and diffuse—symptoms of most Hollywood biopics, which tend to skip lightly along the surface of their subject’s lives. There were reportedly pressures from the studio, Miramax, to put the emphasis on flashy spectacle; and certainly one reason that the movie runs out of narrative steam is that it strives to put a life-affirming spin on the material. The last act of Kahlo’s life was marked by drug addiction, a decline in artistic power, and a desperate embrace of Stalin. But Frida is never allowed to bog down—or to show how fiercely difficult it was for Kahlo to bridge the distance between her personal agony and her art. By the standards of most biopics, Taymor creates a remarkable canvas. But it’s all surface.