Once the cool, multiculti arbiter of secular Hollywood idiosyncrasy, Jonathan Demme hasn’t visited the Daft Side since the late ’80s, when the elastic, accelerating irreverence that pervaded Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and Married to the Mob gave way to serial-killer gloom, AIDS tearjerking, and Toni Morrison. At first blush, The Truth About Charlie, his self-inspecting remake of Stanley Donen’s 1964 gloss Charade, seems a return to youthful form, a spry skip through Cary Grant-land with a heart full of movie love. But the affectionate loopiness that once seemed congenital to Demme’s perspective has a tough time emerging from between the badly dated cutesy-pie mystery scenario and the newfangled Hollywood post-production effects.
Charade fits into Demme’s old structural habits—an innocent taking an uncertain walk on the wild side. The new film is saturated with a French new-waviness (clips from Shoot the Piano Player, cameos by Agnès Varda, Anna Karina, and Charles Aznavour) that gave me a craving for something nouvelle, not a half-hearted Hollywood co-optation. Demme merely evokes French stereotypes (an Anaïs Nin diary, the Hotel Langlois), just as he’s always used “other” cultures as colorful tourist traps without ever attempting to understand them.
In the my-new-dead-husband-was-a-spy? Audrey Hepburn role, Thandie Newton has the requisite recipe of English delicacy and spunk, but the extra dimensions we pray for once she starts whining about “this sordid mess!” never materialize. The decidedly un-urbane Mark Wahlberg has a gift for faux sincerity, but unsurprisingly, the sparsely used background characters are juicier; the negligence of Ted Levine’s self-acupuncturing cardiac case is criminal. The entire cast is encouraged to lighten up too little too late in a frenetic nightclub scene emceed by Karina’s cigar-voiced chanteuse. After years of daunting success and dull issue-pondering, Demme seems to be second-guessing his own cock-eyed humanism, except where it counts least: The end credits—rife with camera acknowledgment and complete with a Hannibal Lecter razz—stand as the spirited silliness Charlie should have been.
Hip-joined merely because they are women who work somewhere east of Sarajevo, Judit Elek and Nana Djordjadze have little in common: The former is a Hungarian vet of the ’60s Euro-wave explosion, the latter a Georgian romantic who began under Soviet rule in 1979. Perhaps their clearest similarity is that each has had one relatively uninteresting film released here: Elek’s Memories of a River (1989), and Djordjadze’s A Chef in Love (1996). Indeed, Djordjadze is a thoroughly Miramaxable voice, with a Cannes Camera d’Or to her credit (for 1987’s Robinson Crusoe in Georgia). Her latest film, 27 Missing Kisses (2000), practically cries out for a Weinstein buy-up. With this Amarcord-esque odyssey of teenage love and lunar fate in the loveliest ex-Soviet-republic hamlet you’ve ever seen, Djordjadze comes off like a sexy, maternal, tea-party Kusturica.
Elek is the sterner, more politically rigorous filmmaker, with a penchant for gimlet-eyed documentaries. Her first fiction feature, The Lady From Constantinople (1969), is a neorealist visit with a old Turkish woman in Budapest who decides to give up her apartment— putting it on the public housing exchange and initiating a Marx Brothers-style inundation of partying flat-hunters. The uncomfortable concentration she brings to Maria’s Day (1983) is breathtaking. A costume chamber-howl about the extended family of Hungarian revolutionary Sandor Petofi years after his death in the 1849 uprising, Elek’s movie is structured around long-take confrontational cataclysm: two unhinged sisters fluctuating between devotion and homicidal rage during a hair-washing, a bitter family roundtable discussing a teenage son’s scandals, two young brothers reading their mother’s old love letters and attempting to understand their own history. The drama bulldozes on beyond what we’re used to, and Elek never blinks.