One truth about Charlie is that he’s dead within the first few minutes of Jonathan Demme’s remake of Stanley Donen’s unremake-able Charade. That’s too bad, because he’s played by Stephen Dillane, with a lively if vaguely derelict charm, conveyed in a fleeting post-sex, pre-death scene and a few uncanny-looking flashback shots, as when he stands in the wreckage of his Parisian apartment, sort of smiling like he has a secret.
As much as these intriguing moments make you wish Charlie had a larger role in the film named for him, you’re pushed to considerably further to desire same when you realize that his more-or-less replacement, the designated romantic lead, the one who takes Dillane’s place alongside lovely Thandie Newton (who plays Charlie’s estranged wife of 3 months, Regina) is Marky Mark. And I don’t even mean to dis him: he’s more than proved he can sort out challenging roles (Boogie Nights comes to mind, as well as 3 Kings, or even James Mangold’s Fear, where he was perfectly matched with William Petersen), but these are exceptions. More often than not, Wahlberg is a stolid sort.
And besides, he and Newton don’t exactly spark.
Regina first espies Whalberg’s Joshua Peters when she thinks Charlie is still alive (though you’ve already gotten the idea that he’s not in that cursory train scene). Sunning herself while on vacation, she’s suddenly caught in Joshua’s shadow. He stands over her for some seconds, lingering just long enough to make her (and you) remember him. This, coupled with her bit of dialogue concerning her decision to divorce Charlie leads to no-surprise when he turns up at De Gaulle, and offers to take her home in his cab, all sweetness and flirtatiousness, whereupon she enters her apartment to find it trashed and essentially emptied. Enter the cops, who inform her that Charlie had multiple identities/passports, and was not an art dealer as he told her. She also learns that he stole with killed over $6 million in missing diamonds, ransom for a political prisoner in Sarajevo.
Several desperate types make it their business to get the diamonds, not much caring that Regina doesn’t know where it might be. She’s also unsure of the identities of her pursuers, including the increasingly friendly Joshua and his cronies, Il-Sang (Joong Hoon Park), Emil (Ted Levine), and Lola (Lisa Gay Hamilton, like Newton, a veteran of Demme’s Beloved). Regina also takes a meeting with one Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins), a U.S. government official who insists she keep her contact with him a secret, which makes her encounters with the nosy cronies more and more awkward — they want info, she wants to keep her promise to the mysterious Mr. Bartholomew; perhaps this is because he tells her that she’s “a decent person,” apparently quite the compliment among this crowd of paramilitary types and con artists.
Regina, meanwhile, doesn’t piece much together, except that her inclination to trust Joshua is probably not such a good idea. She comes to this conclusion when Emil calls her with a cryptic warning about her guest for the evening, Joshua. You get it a minute or so earlier, when Joshua seduces her by playing a Charles Aznavour cd and the man himself appears, first as his old self in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, then as his current self, on the balcony to sing “Quand Tu M’Aimes” while Joshua draws Regina to him, on the other side of the window. It’s a little too adorable and nostalgic, and just odd enough to demonstrate Demme’s real project here — thanking France for producing the Nouvelle Vague. (Such gratitude and appreciation are underlined with cameo appearances by Anna Karina (as a tango instructor named Karina), Magali Noël (as a baleful woman in black), and Agnès Varda (as the Widow Hyppolite).
Joyous as these bits of homage are, they also usefully suggest a theme, having to do with trust and betrayal and the fun to be found in their romantic-comedic collisions. Intellectual and gorgeous, cool, and passionate, New Wave movies embraced all kinds of seeming opposites, but above all, they brought together form and content, sometimes violently, sometimes brilliantly, always provocatively. The Truth About Charlie does that too, and in doing so, marks the director’s return to gossamer verve, following his weighty Hollywood prize-winners like Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s not so balls-out fearless as Something Wild, but conjures a perverse and giddy grace.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have problems: the plot is nonsense, Mr. Bartholomew is mostly a drag (too imperious to be baffling, too predictable to be threatening), and the speedy dispatching of the cronies en route to the leads’ climactic clinch is annoying (aside from a pre-climactic clinch between Regina and Lola, which stops the action in a way that is strangely moving). But the action per se is less important than the look of it, and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s straight-up love for Technicolor and handheld gallivanting around Paris surely comes through: the flea market at Cligancourt is gritty and poetic, the Hotel Langlois (named for the founder of the Cinematheque Francaise) features a terrific cage-style elevator, and streets are bopping with visual commotion.
This visual styling sustains Demme’s deft retooling of the original (which can never be revisited exactly — so you let it go). If the primary reason for casting Newton is, as everyone’s been saying, to evoke Audrey Hepburn (who played Regina in 1963), fine. But she brings her own exquisite energy, and if it’s lost on Wahlberg, it’s certainly appreciated by the black-gloved Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson). Theirs is a most intriguing, playfully gender-fucking relationship, with Regina alternately sharp and soft, and Dominique edgy and tough (and sleeping with the detective who is her partner or underling: hard to say which). Because she’s a cop with a job to do (investigating the missing diamonds and the murder — with several trips to the morgue featuring corpse-eye view shots of those live people peering at the dead), Dominique tends to stay focused. But she also makes no secret of her attraction to and respect for Regina. Together they develop a bond based in frank audacity, naïve and shrewd, boyish and girlish.