Annie and the American Dream

While I enjoyed the marvelous and much-beloved John Huston film adaptation of Annie (1982) and thoroughly enjoy all the songs, I am no Annie purist. I have enjoyed various “faithful” and “reworked” TV and stage versions of the stories, all with the central themes of love, family, and redemption. Let us also not forget that this is fundamentally a story about the American Dream; a plucky orphan overcomes her station in life to be adopted by a millionaire and to become part of a family. She does so with hard work, guts, sheer will, and a positively American optimism.

So it was with much disappointment to be disappointed by the new movie version of Annie. To start, Will Gluck and his film-making team have not thrown themselves into the joy of making a movie musical (Tom Hooper infused more joy into Les Misérables). It’s almost as though the team was embarrassed to make a film of a “dated” genre such as a movie musical – embarrassed by its sudden bursts of song and dance, even as the writing wittily refers to these outbursts. Despite the clever little touches of “musical”—the individual daily sounds of New York coalescing into a symphony, Miss Hannigan’s hilarious and ill-conceived auditions for the part of Annie’s parents, dance sequences on rooftops, parks and city streets, and singing in a helicopter (a nice homage to the 1982 version), there is a marked reluctance to celebrate the joyous, the cheesy, the heart-string pulling, and the moonlight romance.

Second, the actors were not given enough room to display their talents. Notable in this respect is Cameron Diaz, a very funny, physical, and joyful actor, whose natural humor and bawdiness is not given room to breathe. I wish she had been given enough room in her apartment  to move around and show off her lusty physicality. Jamie Foxx (the main reason I went to see this movie) is likewise not given enough room or time to be truly cantankerous. The transition from hardened businessman to loving father seemed so easy and quick—part of the charm of the 1982 version is how long it takes Annie to soften up Daddy Warbucks. Admittedly, the fault partly likes with Mr. Foxx, who has such a warm and kind onscreen presence it is hard to imagine his being more interested in mobile connectivity than connecting with people. It also seemed to me that the film-making team forgot to cast a more memorable and sharp group of character actors to define the charms and character of New York. The orphans, the bodega owner, the limousine driver/bodyguard, the social worker, and the restaurant owner were all good and serviceable but, unfortunately, not interesting. What makes Annie’s world of her own making is her ability to get all the cool cats to help her.

Part of the momentum and magic of John Huston’s Annie is that it was set during the Depression. While the gulf between rich and poor is just as stark and wide today, the material manifestations of that gulf is not as dramatic as during the 1930s. Part of Annie’s (and our) wonder is that shocking transition from her slummy orphanage downtown to the uptown Warbucks mansion. There is a large visual and geographic gap between her old and new homes. Second, the magic of the era’s new technologies—the luxury car, the telephone, the helicopter, and most of all, the movies, is simply more startling and fabulous from the point of view of a deprived orphan. Today’s Annie, through underprivileged, does get to go to school and experience the world and all it has to offer. Even Mr. Stacks’ fully-automated smart apartment, while thoroughly magical for Annie, is not as large a visual transition – it’s just a cool apartment for cool’s sake. In this vein, however, I applaud the filmmakers for creating a thoroughly contemporary Annie, complete with movie premieres, social media, gender equality, race parity, and New York gentrification.  One simply cannot trans-literate the depression era sensibility for a contemporary audience, even if we are still in the great recession of the century.

Finally, the director Will Gluck is no John Huston—and not of his own fault, of course. By the time Mr. Huston directed the 1982 version, he had already directed over 30  well-made, complex, and often big-budget films. He was simply more experienced in bringing both grand themes and visual spectacle to the big screen. He was also closer in age, not just to the Depression, but also to the age of the great movie musicals, and had a better feel for what the movie needed to give: a funny, tender, musical but nonetheless unambiguous vision of the American Dream.

Annie, dir. Will Gluck, 118 min. Marcy Media, Overbrook Entertainment, et al., 2014.