Review: ‘Annette,’ starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in “Annette” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Annette”

Directed by Leos Carax

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and various other parts of the world, the musical “Annette” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A seemingly mismatched stand-up comedian and an opera singer have a passionate romance, get married, and have a daughter named Annette, but then a major tragedy changes their lives forever.

Culture Audience: “Annette” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, as well as people who like to indulge in pretentious musicals with a weak plot.

Cast members of “Annette,” including front row, from left to right, Simon Helberg, Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver; and second row, Russell Mael (behind Cotillard) and Ron Mael, pictured at far right. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Don’t believe the hype. The musical “Annette” is one of those annoying, self-indulgent movies that some people will automatically praise just because it looks European and artsy. Underneath the pretentious sheen is a boring and ludicrous story with forgettable songs and a baby that’s really an animatronic doll that looks like a cleaned-up sister of Chucky from the “Child’s Play” horror franchise.

Directed by Leos Carax, “Annette” has an abysmal screenplay and disappointing music written by brothers Russell Mael and Ron Mael, also known as the experimental pop duo Sparks. The Mael brothers have brief cameos in the movie because they’re not very good actors. Visually, the movie looks better than the actual material because the filmmakers had the budget to build some elaborate set pieces and film the movie in Los Angeles, Belgium and Germany.

Here’s how you know if a musical is good or not: Are at least half of the songs memorable? Do the songs fit well with the story? And do the actors look convincing when they perform the songs? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then the musical isn’t very good and could be downright lousy. A lot of people who don’t care about going along with pseudo-hipster groupthink are going to say “no” to “Annette.”

Some credit should be given to Carax for directing “Annette” with gusto and for choosing some noteworthy designs in production and costumes. But so much of “Annette” looks and sounds like a tacky regional theater production that ended up being made into a movie because the filmmakers convinced people with deep pockets to throw money at this train wreck. Just because a movie tries very hard to be “avant-garde” doesn’t automatically mean it’s supposed to be good art.

“Annette” starts out promising in the first half of the movie when it’s about the romance between edgy stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver) and elegant opera diva Ann Defrasnoux (played by Marion Cotillard), who live in Los Angeles and are both big stars in their respective careers. But it all goes downhill in the second half of the movie, when themes of death and greed are monotonously repeated until “Annette” ends with a whimper instead of a bang. Simon Helberg, who looks very uncomfortable and out-of-place in this musical, depicts an unnamed supporting character who goes from being an accompanist for Ann to being the conductor of an orchestra.

The best parts of “Annette” are seeing Henry perform on stage. Henry’s stand-up act can best be described as if Mitch Hedberg and the late David Foster Wallace decided to collaborate on a stand-up comedy routine and hire some backup singers. Henry’s material is both self-deprecating and condescending to the audience members, who do group chants and or indivdual shouting in response to what Henry says during his act. However, he has full command of the stage and is utterly fascinating to watch. Ann (who is French, just like Cotillard is in real life) is somewhat of a generic opera singer. No one will be be winning any major awards for acting or singing in this movie.

Henry and Ann’s relationship is breathlessly followed by the tabloid media. Ann and Henry get engaged, then married, and then they become parents to a daughter named Annette. And seriously: This baby-turned-toddler is depicted by a creepy-looking animatronic doll with terrible visual effects. It will get some laughs at first, but after a while, this unnatural-looking doll is just an awful distraction.

The last half of the movie has too much spoiler information to describe, but it’s enough to say that the movie gets a lot worse and reaches the point of no return from stupidity when Henry quits stand-up comedy to become a “stage dad” manager to Annette. There are some tragic crimes and a continual pile-on of horrifically bad dialogue. Not even the acting talent of Driver and Cotillard can save this overrated mess of a movie. Driver is also one of the producers of “Annette,” so he bears more responsibility than the other cast members for how this move turned out to be a disappointing slog of irritating and egocentric posturing.

During the latter half of the movie, Driver and Helberg barely even sing. What a ripoff. By the end of the movie, most viewers might remember one or two songs. There are some musicals that have plots and conversations that are mediocre, but the music is so great, it transcends the dialogue and resonates with audiences to the point where people are recommending the soundtrack to others. That’s not the case with “Annette,” which will find a specific audience, but none of the songs from this movie will have a major cultural impact.

You know a musical is bad when the two lead actors (Driver and Cotillard) are respected talents who should elevate the material, but hardly anyone in pop culture is raving about the songs in “Annette,” except the predictable niche audience of Sparks fans. None of the “Annette” filmmakers should pretend that they didn’t want this musical movie to be popular. If they wanted this movie to be underground, they wouldn’t have had corporate behemoth Amazon pay for it, and they wouldn’t have had a splashy world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Simply put: “Annette” looks and sounds like a musical experiment that ultimately stumbles artistically, but some people will still love it because they’re star-struck by the famous people involved in making this movie.

Amazon Studios released “Annette” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021. Amazon Prime Video premiered the movie on August 20, 2021.