The Truth About Charlie is a remake that does best when paying homage to the French New Wave
Charade (1963) had Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Paris. Its 2002 remake, The Truth About Charlie, has Paris and Thandie Newton but no Hepburn, no Grant. In either case, the result is much the same—an amusing trifle, a sprightly and somewhat mannered entertainment.
In Charade, Paris provided suitable surroundings for the stylish sophistication of Cary and Audrey. Now, in this remake directed by Jonathan Demme, 21st-century Paris is both exotic backdrop for a contrived suspense tale and inspiration for a freewheeling homage to the early films of the French New Wave (circa 1963, that is). And the homage is the best of it, for The Truth About Charlie is never better than when it’s mimicking the movie-mad playfulness of early Truffaut and Godard.
Like the original (which was directed by Stanley Donen), Demme’s film takes a somewhat frivolous approach to the suspense genre, but the story remains the same: A wispy young woman returns home to find that her wayward husband has turned up dead and that the authorities and some unsavory types are variously leaning on her to produce the large sum of money that he evidently had absconded with.
Newton, who shows a touch or two of Audrey Hepburnism herself, has the princess-in-peril role this time. Mark Wahlberg has the Grant role—the young woman’s mysterious and possibly duplicitous rescuer—and it goes more or less without saying that the former “Marky Mark” is no Cary Grant. But Newton and Wahlberg are both nicely suited to Demme’s cinematic Paris, which is “post-modern,” multicultural, whimsical in the Truffaut manner and pulsating with an eclectic mix of world music and offbeat pop.
And if Wahlberg looks a little silly in a beret, that’s no problem in a movie that is so attentive and sympathetic to the goofiness in even its more menacing characters. Christine Boisson and Ted Levine are particular beneficiaries of Demme’s approach here. Levine, who plays the most bizarre and comical of the movie’s heavies, is disappointingly absent from the second half of the film, but Boisson, a quirky beauty playing an unpredictable police inspector, gets a good deal of screen time and in effect gives the film a second offbeat heroine. Tim Robbins, playing an oddly out-of-synch government agent, fares less well.
Truffaut, whose grave site appears near the end, seems the presiding spirit over all of this, even though Newton’s characterization seems to owe less to Hepburn than to the adventurous waifs played by Anna Karina in several Jean-Luc Godard films of the early 1960s. Karina herself and Charles Aznavour (star in 1960 of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player) appear in the film’s semi-surreal musical sequences, and veteran actress Magali Noel and New Wave director Agnes Varda have brief parts as well.
Not the least of the sidelights in this tenderly elegiac movie is the hint that this is the film that Jonathan Demme made instead of doing another Hannibal Lecter movie. (He directed The Silence of the Lambs but rejected Hannibal as an unworthy extension of the story of Clarice Starling).