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. Prime Video premiered the movie on August 20, 2021.

2021 Cannes Film Festival: ‘Annette’ is the opening night film

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

The following is a press release from Amazon Studios:

Amazon Studios’ “Annette” was announced as the opening night film at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Leos Carax, and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, “Annette” will make its world premiere on July 6, 2021 on the Croisette, marking the return of the film festival after last year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon Studios will release the musical love story in late summer 2021 in theaters and on Amazon Prime Video. “Annette’s” original screenplay, original songs and score were written and composed by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of the innovative pop/rock band Sparks. “Annette” is produced by Charles Gillibert and Paul-Dominique Win Vacharasinthu. Simon Helberg also stars.
 
Legendary filmmaker Leos Carax returns to Cannes with his first feature film since the critically acclaimed “Holy Motors” (2012).

About “Annette”
 
Los Angeles, today. Henry (Adam Driver) is a stand-up comedian with a fierce sense of humor who falls in love with Ann (Marion Cotillard), a world-renowned opera singer. Under the spotlight, they form a passionate and glamorous couple. With the birth of their first child, Annette, a mysterious little girl with an exceptional destiny, their lives are turned upside down. A film by visionary director Leos Carax (Holy Motors), with story & music by Ron & Russell Mael of Sparks, this original musical is a journey of love, passion & fame. 

Review: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

 

 

 

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