Leapin’ lizards! Or maybe, given the new Annie’s obsession with social media, we should give the leading lady a new catchphrase. Something like Twitter twaddle!
The biggest difference between Annie 2014 and the 1977 Broadway smash (and the 1982 movie and 1999 made-for-TV movie) isn’t that Annie and the billionaire who changes her life are played by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx (Ray). Nor is it that the story has been doggedly updated from the Depression era to up-to-the-minute New York, with even Annie’s canine pal Sandy getting a makeover.
The problem is that hardly anyone in the cast can sing or dance on a level that’s more than passable (Foxx is a fine exception). And that’s a problem when the movie is a musical.
Director-producer and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits) tries to set up a link at the top of the movie between the 1930s time period of the first Annie and today’s rough economic times. He has Wallis give a “performance piece” classroom report about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. It’s clever, and you think, “Hmmm. Maybe this will be good.”
No such luck.
Annie and the four other girls she lives with aren’t orphans this time around. They’re foster kids housed in what’s supposed to be a crummy Harlem apartment rented by a generally drunk, always shrill former rock backup singer named Colleen Hannigan. (And the apartment, cutely set-decorated, doesn’t look all that bad.)
Onstage and previously onscreen, Miss Hannigan was a lonely, kid-hating gal bedeviled by her charges. Now, as portrayed by Cameron Diaz, she’s a shrew. David Zayas plays Lou, a bodega owner who’s sweet on Miss H, even though she’s as nasty to him as she is to the girls. Yet Zayas’ Lou remains enamored. Now that’s acting.
Every Friday night, Annie sits outside an appealing Italian restaurant called Domani (translated: Tomorrow, the musical’s signature song). Seems that’s where her folks dropped her off with a note one night when they went for cannoli. Now a sympathetic waiter comes out at the end of each vigil and gives Annie a box with the sweets in it. No mom or dad, but at least she gets dessert once a week.
The plucky, positive foster kid takes a giant leap into affluence when she crosses paths with cellphone mogul Will Stacks (Foxx). He’s running for mayor but lagging behind one Harold Gray in the polls (the name is a nod to the creator of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip). After a YouTube video of Stacks saving Annie from getting squished by a car goes viral, his shady campaign advisor Guy (Bobby Cannavale) and loyal company vice president Grace (Rose Byrne) suggest Stacks become Annie’s foster dad — the better to trot her out at photo ops, as far as the manipulative Guy is concerned.
The basic plot threads and some of the original Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin songs (including Maybe, It’s the Hard Knock Life and Tomorrow) have been incorporated into Gluck’s update with changes. Some characters have been dropped, some songs cut and some lyrics altered by composer Greg Kurstin and Sia, who contributed the original numbers The City’s Yours (an empowering song Stacks croons to Annie as they tour Manhattan by helicopter) and Opportunity (sung by Annie, decked out in a dazzling red dress and backed by a full orchestra).
Charm-wise, the reconceived Annie suffers from anemia. The pretty Wallis sports a pleasant game face throughout most of the movie, comes off as thoroughly self-reliant and has little obvious chemistry with Foxx. He seems preoccupied, as if he’s thinking about what movie he should have done instead. Cannavale is a cartoon villain and Byrne a wan leading lady.
The new Annie is jam-packed with Glee-style choreography and greed-is-good luxury. Like its predecessors, it’s a fantasy. But unlike them, it’s not so much heartwarming as warmed-over.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz, David Zayas.
Director: Will Gluck.
Screenwriter: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna, Emma Thompson.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Mild language and danger. Playing at: area theaters.