Review: Annie (2014)

The big production movie musical ain’t dead yet.  And while 2014’s reimagined Annie isn’t a great movie, it’s at least an entertaining one: generally family-friendly, predictably uplifting, and decent fodder for a bit of imaginative Christian reflection.

Annie Bennett (Quvenzhane — pronounced kwah-ven-zhah-nay — Wallis), no longer a Depression-era orphan, is recast as a modern-day foster kid in New York.  She lives with four other girls under the bleary and scornful eye of Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a bitter, drunken singer with a failed career whose only interest in foster care is the money.  Annie, ever the optimist, still hopes to find her parents one day, and tries to give hope to the other girls.

While running through the streets to save a stray dog from the boys who are tormenting it, she falls in front of an oncoming truck, and is rescued by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a germ-phobic and unpopular cell-phone magnate who wants to be the next mayor of New York.  An amateur video of the rescue goes viral, prompting Stacks’ do-whatever-it-takes campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) to capitalize on the publicity.  Street-savvy Annie parlays a photo-op into an invitation to move into Stacks’ opulent penthouse — and even those who aren’t familiar with the story can guess the essentials of what happens from there.  Will adorable little Annie sing and dance her way into Stacks’ antisocial heart?  How far is the opportunistic and unscrupulous Guy willing to go?  And will we get to see a real human being beneath Hannigan’s boozy exterior?

Musically, Annie mostly succeeds.  We already know that Foxx can sing, and Wallis, who at the ripe old age of 11 already has impressive Hollywood cred (she is the youngest actress ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), is a pleasant surprise (and may I say how much she looks like a young Whoopi Goldberg?).  Some of the old standards — e.g., “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life” — from the Broadway musical are retained, and new numbers are added.  Celebrity cameos also abound (Michael J. Fox, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Rihanna).

Overall, however, the script seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis, poking fun at musicals, as if to wink conspiratorially at an audience that might find it strange when characters suddenly burst into song.  Updating the film’s setting and premise also has its risks.  In the 1982 version, for example, Carol Burnett’s portrayal of Hannigan — involving her familiar brand of over-the-top physical comedy — worked, because the film hewed closely to a comic strip feel.  But Diaz’s snarling and drunken turn now seems out of place, like a cartoon character awkwardly dropped into the middle of a live-action movie.  The contrast is made all the more striking by the relatively understated performances of others (most notably Foxx), and the character is written to constantly call attention to herself.  It’s meant to be humorous, but it comes off as overly hammy and shrill (no disrespect to Ms. Diaz — I think she’s done well with what she’s been given).

As others have noted, given the story’s premise, the movie could have been darker: Hannigan’s cruelty is kept in check, and the girls’ living conditions don’t reflect anything close to true poverty.  And there is a sense in which the conspicuous wealth and power of Stacks’ lifestyle is portrayed as the Promised Land for aspiring waifs, an off-key reminder of the American you-can-be-whatever-you-want myth of economic success.

Still, the fairy-tale storyline gives us reason to pause and reflect.  Salvation narratives come in all forms.  True, Annie may implicitly give us a version of America’s Gospel According to Horatio Alger, but the more central theme is the gospel of family and relationship: will Annie find a family, a place to be loved, to belong?  Will Stacks cease his striving for power and success, come to his senses, and realize What’s Really Important in Life?

In a feel-good movie such as Annie, salvation has to be achieved before the final scene of triumph and celebration.  Only then can the end credits roll.  But I am reminded of Paul’s words to the church in Rome:

We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.  And it’s not only the creation.  We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.  (Rom 8:22-23, CEB)

It is, as they say, a hard-knock life, one that makes us groan.  We’re spiritual orphans who have the joy of being adopted — but in this life, we must live with the sense that our full adoption is not yet complete.

In the meantime, we can still sing and dance in anticipation of the day.  Because our hoped-for tomorrow?  In the Lord’s reckoning of time, it’s only a day away.