Midway between the new remake of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s hit musical Annie, the titular hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) attempts to entertain her filthy-rich benefactor, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), by cooking up a midnight snack. Hoping to demonstrate she can resourcefully turn anything into a meal, she takes the only ingredients he has at his disposal—fusilli, pancetta, pomegranates, truffles—and binds them with some heavy cream. This casserole of avarice, like the movie itself, is assembled entirely from accent marks with no actual entrée. And yet it still manages to be a more palatable concoction. If the fact that Annie was among the films selected by allegedly punitive North Korean forces to leak online is any indication, hackers are definitely not movie critics. Because, unless their point was to illustrate how embarrassingly crass Sony’s crown jewel for the holiday family-movie season actually is, one could scarcely imagine a less artistically valuable commodity to distribute to the masses.
Bearing the many scars of a long and futile development hell, 2014: Annie’s America makes director John Huston’s elephantine, synthetically charismatic 1982 adaptation look like a Minnelliesque model of focus and concision. And these filmmakers aren’t shy about inviting comparisons either. The movie begins with a pointed, frontal-axis shot of a familiar, carrot-topped, red sweater-adorned moppet whose mother evidently forgot to crush the Ritalin into her applesauce that morning, giving a manically exuberant history report to her class and putting a button on it with an impromptu soft shoe. The eye-rolling reactions of her classmates drive home that this Annie is operating in a universe exasperated with Broadway overtures, tappa-tappa, and being fully dressed with a Vaseline smile. Only after establishing that does their teacher introduce us to “Annie B,” the fresher, newer showroom model who leads the class in a foot-stompin’ simulation of FDR’s New Deal, deeming Depression-era America to be “pretty much just like now, but without the Internet.” Remix!
No longer an orphan, now a foster kid, Annie is still desperate to be reunited with her parents, and camps daily outside of the Italian restaurant where they apparently burped her out before dining and dashing. On her way to her breadstick sabbatical one day, she stumbles into the path of an SUV and gets pushed out of the way by Stacks, a smartphone tycoon and mayoral hopeful. Someone catches it on camera, posts it on YouTube, and, before you can say “301+ views,” there’s hope for the candidate who hides cellphone towers inside national landmarks and rinses his mouth out with antibacterial solution any time a constituent steps within three feet of his personal space.
The fact that cynicism is Annie’s default setting is painfully clear even before Annie herself begins negotiating the terms of her public appearances with Stacks. That alone isn’t a problem, given the 1982 film’s most enduring traits came from the cast members who punctured through the wall of corn syrup, most notably Carol Burnett’s hiccupping, wobbling Miss Hannigan (like the spirit of W.C. Fields possessing Stella Stevens’s Poseidon Adventure floozy). But Burnett and everyone else around her at least understood the value of putting showmanship first. Wallis may have been a natural within the magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, but a stage brat she is not, and in a vehicle like this, no amount of cutting around it will disguise the fact. And as each bastardized, pop-lite show tune lands with an Auto-Tuned thud, one starts to suspect the reason every other cast member seems locked in a contest to see which of them can squelch their inherent talent is some bizarrely valiant attempt to draw negative attention away from her. Maybe?