The moment of 'Truth' arrives for Demme

'Charlie' might bring a cinema secret weapon out of hiding


October 20, 2002|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The ads for The Truth About Charlie proclaim, "From the director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia." But true fans of Jonathan Demme -- the euphoric artist-entertainer who sends established forms soaring in new directions -- will see this elating comic thriller as the latest work from the man who made Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

When Demme isn't tackling blockbuster novels like Lambs or grappling with social issues like AIDS in Philadelphia, he is a master of creative fusion, crafting brave and novel styles of funky elegance. For years, he was the secret weapon of American cinema. His movies unearthed neglected seeds of American renewal -- and brought them to flower -- without winning the accolades and revenue they deserved.

Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) blew in on the final gust of mainstream Hollywood's last creative renaissance and infused it with an infectious and uproarious grass-roots egalitarianism. Demme's Something Wild (1986) equaled David Lynch's Blue Velvet in its hairpin curves and twisted light and darkness, while speaking directly to yuppie self-disgust.

And Married to the Mob (1988) was a delicious Mafia farce in which Michelle Pfeiffer's gangland widow went through slapstick versions of the Soprano family's agony. These films and others, like Demme's brilliant 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, developed video and repertory after-lives that dwarfed their initial audiences.

But his timing may click with The Truth About Charlie, a wildly enjoyable remake of the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic Charade. He's brought a ravenous appetite for fresh sights, sounds and textures into his first overseas production.

Mark Wahlberg plays Joshua Peters, a mysterious American in Paris, and Thandie Newton plays Regina ("Reggie") Lambert, an irresistible Londoner whose husband, Charles, has left her stranded there. (In the 1963 version Grant was "Peter Joshua" and Hepburn "Regina Lampert.")

A heroine in Paris

From the moment Joshua and Regina discover that her scampish spouse was murdered, the film moves like a madcap urban steeplechase through the City of Lights. The contemporary Paris of The Truth About Charlie is a bubbling melting pot and an exhilarating playground that hasn't lost the gritty glamour of the early-'60s French New Wave.

Newton, known to arthouse audiences for her heart-stopping performance in Bertolucci's Besieged and to mass audiences for her Ingrid Bergman-esque co-starring turn in Mission: Impossible 2, embodies a rare live-action heroine who's unflappable and upbeat without making you sick.

Her Reggie is as sweet and decent as she is beautiful, and rarely in the dumps even after disillusion sets in. Demme may center this tale on the need for truth and honor. But the end effect of the perils of Reggie is to demonstrate the benefits of laughing through disaster.

Over lunch in Washington, D.C., Demme and Newton are ebullient and maybe just the tiniest bit antsy. Demme says, "Going into the summer, I thought we were dead. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding is now my favorite film in the world, because it's a humanist comedy, and it's this enormous phenomenon. It could be a blip, but it appears that folks are turning away from extremes, and from super-duper special effects, and seeking some other fundamental appeal of movies.

"I hope Charlie can come roaring in on this, because we're an old-fashioned, people-oriented mystery, but dressed up in a very contemporary way."

Newton adds: "It's a film that a young college person would find and recommend -- 'Hey, check out The Truth About Charlie' -- and in doing so seem incredibly cool. Because it's intelligent, it's set in Paris, it's got that whole New Wave thing, it's crazed. It's super-hip."

And it boasts Charles Aznavour, the singing legend who became a movie legend in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, playing Cupid to Wahlberg and Newton as he croons soulfully about love. Will it make Aznavour the next Tony Bennett? "Let's face it," Newton says, "retro is so in now."

The whole project grew out of their joint excitement. For Demme, re-watching the old Charade and thinking of doing it with Newton were "one and the same experience." He asked Newton, a friend since she starred in Beloved (1998), to take a look at the picture without confessing that he had her in mind for Hepburn's part.

"I just loved watching it," she says. "It's effortlessly entertaining. At the same time it's got that really dated thing going as well, so when Jonathan talked about updating it, I thought, perfect! Those two artists [Grant and Hepburn] are so much of their time -- such icons of that era -- that you can plant the story in today's Paris and just keep going, going, going."

Hepburn's shadow

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