Far from Demme’s worst film, it’s one of his most fascinating.
In 2002’s The Truth About Charlie, Jonathan Demme reimagines an old Hollywood gem as an expressive, experimental slice of modernity, to mixed results. It’s one of two notable remakes in his filmography, but as an exercise in playing against type, it shows that Demme could have had a lucrative career as an artsier Tony Scott, should the desire have ever crossed his mind.
Charlie is based heavily on Stanley Donen’s 1963 film Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The original is an effervescent piece of pop art, buoyed by the considerable charm of its leads and the stylistic elasticity of writer Peter Stone’s incredible screenplay. In it, Hepburn plays a woman named Regina who considers divorcing her new husband while on vacation because she feels he keeps too many secrets. When she comes home to Paris after her trip, her apartment is stripped bare and her husband, Charlie, is dead. Charlie, it turns out, kept a great deal of secrets, not the least of which was his past in the OSS in WWII, where he and a group of men stole $250,000 worth of gold from the French Resistance. Charlie screwed over the rest of his crew, and now the gang is hounding Regina thinking she knows where it’s all hidden. Along the way, she meets Peter Joshua, played by Grant, a man who just wants to help her out but ends up having a handful of conflicting cover stories. The runtime is split between the ongoing romantic chase between Grant and Hepburn alongside a sly reinvention of the Hitchcock “wrong man” thriller structure. It feels like a screwball take on the Master of Suspense, with more flair and humor than Hitch ever mustered.
Demme’s approach to remaking Charade is rooted in his adoration for French New Wave. He was particularly enamored with the idea that Donen was filming this movie in France at the same time Godard, Truffaut and others were breathing new life into cinema itself. Donen lensed his iteration with a fanciful kind of formalism that strengthened the accepted tropes of the genre so the wit of the banter and pliability of the characters could undo that framework from within. For his interpretation, Demme plays fast and loose, utilizing New Wave cutting patterns and a postmodern approach that sends up a send up, refracting the original film’s charming irreverence as a more thoughtful treatise on the nature of deception and regret. In Charade, Donen saw a vehicle to aggrandize the loving artifice of Hollywood glam and so made a film that made the spy genre a clever tip of the hat to the very nature of performance, identity and storytelling. But The Truth About Charlie moves the plot away from Cary Grant’s exponentially absurd aliases and character bio twists to sincerely dramatize concentric circles of trust and pain.
His take swaps Grant and Hepburn for Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, which is about one half of a great casting decision. Newton was a no brainer to channel Hepburn, but the idea for Wahlberg was for him to be a somewhat bumbling Jean-Paul Belmondo deconstruction of the late ’90s leading man. It’s a fine concept, but one that tasked Wahlberg beyond his range at the time. Where Grant was nearing the end of his career and provided an effortless distillation of poise and cool, Wahlberg was still near the dawn of his filmography, still too stilted to do the heavy lifting Demme asked of him. The original film envisioned a trio of recognizable character actors as Charlie’s former teammates, each a stock B-player, but identifiable and well-drawn nonetheless. Demme recasts them as a more diverse group, with Lisa Gay Hamilton and Joong-hoon Park replacing Ned Glass and George Kennedy. It’s a laudable alteration, but this film gives these characters less to do and limited time to breathe, making them come across as odd tokens.
Perhaps the only actor in the ensemble who seems to channel what the original embodied is Tim Robbins, who picks up for Walter Matthau by doing a pretty horrendous but ultimately adorable impression of the iconic thesp. The cast also has to work from a script that’s far lower in quality than Stone’s original, such that Stone himself refused to have his name associated with the film, even for a “story by” credit. Much of the writing lacks his skill for characterization and pacing, but the parts that do work well seem to function independently of the page.
Demme worked with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to create the film’s distinct look. Characterized by loping camera movements, the oddly lyrical use of zooms and a confrontational application of point-of-view shots, Demme seemed obsessed with capturing the looks between the characters, finding engaging art within their persistent lies. The effect is the polar opposite of the flat, open compositions of Charade, where the viewer has to read both the perpetrator and victim of subterfuge in the same frame. Here, he places the viewer directly in Regina’s shoes and lets them parse out who is telling the truth. It’s a more dynamic way to present the tale, but the other story alterations hold the narrative from the cohesion and verve of the original.
In recent years, Demme’s remake has taken on something of a cult status after being poorly received critically and commercially upon initial release. In his death, it was one of the first works to attract eager reassessment, but that’s largely because of the risks it takes and the curious choices it’s founded upon, not its execution. The Truth About Charlie is far from Demme’s worst film, and it’s one of his most fascinating.