In All the Ways That Matter, Annie Is a Giant Missed Opportunity

Photo: Sony Pictures

The new Annie musical starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis is pretty bad, but let’s be honest: Despite some decent show tunes, the show was pretty bad to begin with, so it’s not worth getting all righteous about the dumb changes.

I saw literally the first public performance (a preview) of Annie in the bicentennial summer of ’76 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Haddam, Connecticut. It was an embarrassing shambles — a saccharine distaff Oliver! — but even then I knew I’d be hearing that goddamn “Tomorrow” song for the rest of my life. The show got slicked up for Broadway and became a substantial hit, but apart from endless “Tomorrow” covers it bothered no one for a few years — until John Huston’s putrid 1982 movie with a baldy Albert Finney doing a Huston impression and Carol Burnett a two-hour drunk act. Leapin’ lizards, was the comic strip even good? It was certainly interesting. Harold Gray had the courage of his libertarian convictions (FDR was Daddy Warbucks’s nemesis), and Little Orphan Annie did her best to embody the American corporate-capitalist spirit, only accepting handouts from billionaire war profiteers. The strip ran a surprisingly long time before it was pronounced dead a few years ago, though the late, witty Jay Maeder (once of the New York Daily News) gave it a last dash of savoir faire.

Meanwhile, Will Smith had snapped up the musical as a vehicle for his daughter, Willow. So this could have been worse: Willow as Annie with Daddy Warbucks transformed into L. Ron Hubbard. Say this for the beleaguered Sony Pictures, it helped us dodge that bullet.

One of the best things in the new movie is the opening, in which a perky redheaded little girl named Annie delivers a paean to Calvin Coolidge before her class. Then the teacher calls on a second Annie, and Quvenzhané Wallis bounds up to the front. We’re suddenly in 2014, where African-Americans can appropriate Little Miss Libertarian America for their own rather different ends (there is a halfhearted nod to a social contract) and make it just as dumb. She’s now Little Foster Child Annie, living with a few other sad girls at the home of failed singer and successful meanie Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz — about whom anon).

First a word about Wallis, with her sky-wide grin and wider hair: She’s the opposite of an insufferable, Shirley Temple–like showbiz fireball. She cultivates an inner stillness and shrugs off bad lines. She has evolved beyond cuteness. She moves lightly, like a dream. She doesn’t have Annie’s requisite gumption, but she has something better: grace. She’s a movie star — but not, on the evidence, a singer. Wallis is Auto-Tuned up the wazoo. This Annie features what is likely the least effective “Tomorrow” of all time, although it’s not principally her fault. The singing doesn’t sound like it’s coming from her mouth, and the staging — it was filmed as she wanders the streets of Manhattan — has zero urgency. But Wallis gets by. She’s touching (though even more Auto-Tuned) in a not-bad new song by Sia called “Opportunity,” which will probably show up at the Academy Awards. Her star will only brighten.

No one else will be helped by this movie, for which we must blame the director, Will Gluck. He created a good showcase for Emma Stone in the campy Easy A and didn’t disgrace himself with the dim rom-com Friends With Benefits, but he doesn’t know the first thing about shooting a number in a musical comedy. He takes his cues from music videos. The dances are chopped to hell, and whenever the camera happens to be in the right place (it seems by accident), the shots aren’t held long enough to register anything special about the performers. Borderline intolerable songs like “I Think I’m Going to Like It Here” cross over the border.

Daddy Warbucks is now called “Will Stacks” and is a barely socialized billionaire cell-phone magnate who decides on a whim to run for mayor, hooking up with Annie after he saves her from being hit by a car. (She was chasing the stray Sandy, who will become her loving pooch.) Bringing her into his fabulous high-tech high-rise pad is (as in earlier iterations) a PR stunt, and it’s left to the child to endear herself to the awkward bachelor. What she sees in him other than $$$ is a mystery. Foxx doesn’t cut it as a simpleton rich boy and would probably have been targeted for ridicule if not for Cameron Diaz’s disastrous Miss Hannigan — a disaster that’s not, I’m convinced, of her own making.

Any decent director would have taken one look at the dailies and told Diaz to take the garishness down about ten notches — to stop twisting up her features and shrieking her lines, as if to say that she (Cameron Diaz) is nothing like Miss Hannigan and is doing character acting. The conception of Hannigan — not an orphanage mistress but a bitter, unemployed showbiz reject taking in foster kids to get money from the state — is workable, and Diaz can be a wonderful comedian. If she’d played the role in the spirit of her sexy Bad Teacher she could have knocked this out of the park. She still pulls off one of the show’s best numbers, though, the breathy plaint “Little Girls,” largely because it’s the first (and only) time she relaxes and lets us see her features.

Bobby Cannavale as Stacks’s sleazy PR strategist succeeds with sheer Broadway slickness, and Stephanie Kurtzuba has a funny moment or two as a strenuously indifferent Russian child-welfare bureaucrat — until the movie turns her into a ditz. As Stacks’s lonely, buttoned-up assistant, Grace, the spectacularly self-assured, charismatic Rose Byrne, has to pretend she’s none of the above and isn’t convincing for a second. There’s a fun scene where Hannigan auditions people to pretend to be Annie’s parents (Hannigan’s lowlife cohorts Rooster and Lily are gone and not missed), but the script by Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna is otherwise a stinker.

I imagine Annie will make a mint, though, which might offset some of Sony’s losses from deep-sixing The Interview. But in all the ways that matter it’s a missed opportunity to take a flawed musical and transform it into a powerful new myth with a particular African-American slant. The black angle is neutered, and the movie not just a dud but a humiliation.