An 'Annie' without the expected sunshine, spirit or energy

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
The sunshine, energy and vitality of 'Annie' is missing in the new 21st century film version

Hard to believe the sun will come out tomorrow for the new "Annie."

Starring Jamie Foxx as the mogul and Quvenzhané Wallis as the moppet, there are so many reasons to rain on this parade.

Director Will Gluck's glam, grim re-imagining of the Depression-era musical about the hard-hearted rich man and the little girl who melts him, is truly depressing. The setting is a bright and shiny 21st century New York City. The downer is not so much the divide between the have and have-nots, although Gluck has widened it considerably. It's the dark motivations that seep into the script written by Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on — but without the spirit and vitality of — the Broadway book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin.

Cynicism lurks around every corner, hides behind nearly every smile and overtakes the story. Though some of Broadway's "Annie" remains, including the songs "Tomorrow" and "The Hard-Knock Life," which made the stage production a Tony-winning sensation, very little about the new version feels good.

And what is "Annie's" reason for living if not to make everyone feel better and be better? It's the quintessential personal transformation story tied to an irrepressible child's smile. Even the marginally good 1980s attempt to turn the musical into a movie understood that.

Instead, this politically corrupt, economically super-sized "Annie" is badly off-key.

Stepping in for Daddy Warbucks is big-bucks Will Stacks (Foxx), a cellphone billionaire who uses a helicopter to get around Manhattan as often as a town car. Will is locked in a bitter race for mayor, and he's losing — something about his lack of humanity. Grace (Rose Byrne) is his bright, beautiful second-in-command with self-esteem issues and a crush on the boss. A sleazy Guy (Bobby Cannavale) is running Will's campaign. Theirs is a win-at-any-cost strategy.

Annie lives in a Harlem foster home with a few other girls. Mrs. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who runs the place, is as drunk and surly as ever. She's also a sexual predator now, always on the prowl. That's the kind of "new" and not improved that you find in this "Annie."

Hannigan has dirty floors, mops and plenty of marching orders for her charges, which give way to singing, dancing and glimmers of the ghosts of Annie past.

But even the musical numbers feel flat, especially the new ones that seem tossed in for no reason other than to make the Billboard pop charts.

With the exception of Foxx, no one in the cast is much of a singer. Anyone who saw Diaz doing off-key karaoke so endearingly in "My Best Friend's Wedding" will realize she wasn't faking it. Wallis has a sweet voice, but it isn't strong, which even the amped-up instrumentation can't mask. You do miss the powerhouse delivery of the little divas who are normally cast in the role — it's not merely about turning up the volume, but the vibrant energy.

The script pays lip service to modern problems like Annie's literacy issues, Will's dependence on hand sanitizers and a viral video that ties their fates together. But it all feels as contrived as the sets, which are high-end but trying too hard.

Before Annie is sucked into Will's world, she spends her Friday nights in front of the Italian restaurant where her parents left her with a letter and half a locket. Like all the previous Annies, she is a sweet-tough take-charge kid, and when Wallis is allowed to be kid-like, she shines.

Not many other performances in the movie are worth mentioning, except Stephanie Kurtzuba as Annie's weary social services caseworker. The actress is the only one who seems to understand the difference between cynicism and satire.

A little heart sneaks in as Will and Annie start bonding, and Grace and Will start flirting. Meanwhile, Guy and Mrs. Hannigan start scheming. Yet somehow the singing and dancing and relationship-building ring hollow.

If you were at all a fan of the Gluck-directed "Easy A," the high-school teen comedy that gave Emma Stone a foothold on stardom, you may wonder what's happened. "Easy" had a clever edge to it — girl makes the in-crowd by spreading false rumors about her dating life — but Gluck drew out a sweetness and some sympathy for the human condition that's gone missing in "Annie."

Consider the reshaping of the "find Annie's parents" fiasco. Unlike the original, where the subtext driving the rush to claim the girl was hunger and hardship, this gold rush is pure opportunism. From the casting call to find the proper parents to the nefarious plot to dump the girl back into the system when they're done, it allows in a level of darkness and deceit that is disturbing.

As to the possibility of future appearances by the sun in "Annie's" tomorrows — I wouldn't bet my bottom dollar.



MPAA rating: PG for some mild language and rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: In general release

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