Originally created 10/25/02

At the movies: 'The Truth About Charlie'



There's a review of "The Truth About Charlie" coming, but first you must endure a self-indulgent recollection.

This 5-year-old kid back in the '60s is staying with his grandparents, and Grandma Bertha subscribes to the TV-as-babysitter system to keep the boy occupied.

One day, up comes some macabre but merry crime romp about a classy older gent, a peppy young flirt and some thugs, including one with a hook for a hand, a rattling notion for a boy yet to see "Peter Pan."

Then comes the scene when a bathroom door is flung open to reveal hook guy drowned in an overflowing tub, bearing the most vacant expression the kid's ever seen on a human face. The kid's first real taste of an adult film has taught him life's scariest lesson, that one day, everybody's face will go as blank as hook guy's.

The image sticks with him for decades, though he remembers almost nothing else about the movie. Then 20 years later, he rents Stanley Donen's "Charade," starring classy older gent Cary Grant, peppy young flirt Audrey Hepburn, and some thugs, including Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy, sporting a hook for a hand.

The grown-up kid feels a chill as Grant throws open a bathroom door and discovers Kennedy staring up absently from under the water.

Cut to the near-present, when he learns a remake is in the works called "The Truth About Charlie." He's not thrilled at the casting - Thandie Newton and the generally bland Mark Wahlberg subbing for Hepburn and Grant - but it's written and directed by Jonathan Demme, so there's hope the director might craft a mix of the whimsy of his "Melvin and Howard" and the suspense of his "The Silence of the Lambs."

If you think this lead-in's been self-indulgent, wait till you see "The Truth About Charlie" (actually, don't see it; take our word and save yourself time and money better spent on another flick).

Demme's taken a movie he loves, copied the essential plot verbatim without a single new twist, then strung on baubles that degrade "Charade's" charming story to a turgid mess.

Newton is Regina, who returns from a holiday to find her hubby, Charlie, whom she was about to divorce, murdered. Regina's quickly beset by oddballs, all interested in a fortune Charlie may or may not have left in her keeping.

There's Joshua (Wahlberg), who seems to be a good Samaritan but whose shifting identities leave Regina in doubt; a shadowy U.S. official (Tim Robbins); three menacing toughs (Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Ted Levine); and a police detective (Christine Boisson) and her aide (Simon Abkarian).

Newton's fairly enchanting, at times channeling Hepburn's fusion of elegance and befuddlement. Predictably, Wahlberg's a bore, while Robbins seems to be attempting a Matthau impersonation while constipated.

Demme adds flourishes that amount to groveling at the altar of the French New Wave, noting in background materials for "The Truth About Charlie" that the Paris of "Charade" looks quaintly Old World considering that the film came out in 1963, when Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others were redefining cinema.

So, Demme figures, wouldn't it be cool to spice up "Charade" with New Wave touches?

Much of "The Truth About Charlie" is shot in the hit-and-run style and edited with the hiccuping discontinuity pioneered by Godard. Big deal. Done to death in the cinematic naturalism of the last 40 years.

More annoying are Demme's inside jokes. He tosses in pointless roles for New Wave legends Charles Aznavour and Anna Karina and director Agnes Varda. In one sequence, Wahlberg meanders through Paris in an old-fashioned hat and jacket resembling the jaunty outfit of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's "Breathless." And the image of Truffaut's gravestone in the closing credits is just bizarre.

The references will be lost on younger audiences unversed in the French New Wave. For everyone else, Demme's cutesy indulgences jumble up a blithely convoluted story with dull, needless distractions.

"The Truth About Charlie," a Universal release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content and nudity. Running time: 104 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.