Of course, it's terrible—but did it have to be this bad? Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu are Charlie's newly configured Angels, post-feminist riffs on roles first memorialized by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith. There's no direct correspondence between the old and the new—Barrymore is the tough babe; Diaz plays what's been described in production accounts as the "scientific" one, which seems to mean that she has a working brain; while Liu's defining trait seems to be that she isn't white. As before, the three Angels work for an anonymous millionaire (surprisingly, the new economy hasn't bumped him up a few billions) who contacts his employees through what looks to be the exact same speakerphone from the old television series. Bill Murray, mugging lazily, plays the Angels' go-between, Bosley, a casting decision likely meant to goose the film's hoped-for hip quotient. Murray is too obviously bored with the material to give it the benefit of his irony, however, and the performance is as incessantly—even aggressively—bland as the movie itself.
In the three years since the project was announced, industry columns have burbled about a difficult shoot, from the testicular-cancer diagnosis for Barrymore's fianc, comic Tom Green, to a much-publicized, much-denied spat between Liu and Murray. Fewer column inches were devoted to the news that the script underwent 16 to 30 rewrites (Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon and John August are the guys who finally staked their claim). Or that the director hired to take the Angels higher is a commercial and music-video veteran who goes by the McDiminutive "McG," a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol. Until now, McG—his Directors Guild credit—has been best known for the "Khaki Country" Gap commercial in which fresh-scrubbed men and women line-dance to Dwight Yoakam. Perhaps it was their nimble maneuvers that inspired co-producer Barrymore, under the aegis of her company, Flower Films, to tap McG to shepherd her and her co-stars through their countless splits, high kicks and martial-arts pirouettes. Certainly it wasn't because McG can direct a movie, as is evident whenever the actors talk to one another in a scene in which the dialogue isn't drowned by squealing tires or throbbing bass lines.
In Charlie's Angels, Diaz kicks the highest, Liu smiles the least, and Barrymore does an ungainly moonwalk. All three women flaunt Emma Peel fetishwear and shiny hair that, inexplicably, never gets in the way of their daredevil moves. The supporting cast—Tim Curry, Kelly Lynch, Crispin Glover, Matt LeBlanc—are either underused or badly used, and Green's five screen minutes are too long by four and a half. The shambles of a story involves a kidnapped genius (one of the film's conceptual jokes is that he's played by the low-wattage Sam Rockwell), some corporate intrigue and a bitter historical wound. In the original series, the whole thing would have been wrapped up in an hour, including commercials, but here it takes 98 tedious minutes, including a flabby James Bond-style pre-credit sequence with a winking reference to T.J. Hooker: The Movie. Why, wonders one character, do they keep making movies out of old TV shows? It's a question that cuts to the very existence of this dud, which is being touted as one of its studio's bigger seasonal gambits.
In an interview with Columbia Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal, the Los Angeles Times' Claudia Eller wrote that "Pascal is ultrasensitive about criticisms from her detractors that Charlie's Angels is yet another 'girl movie,' after bombing with such female-driven films including 28 Days, Hanging Up and Girl, Interrupted." "This is a movie about totally positive female energy," Pascal was quoted as saying, "and I think it's an important thing that girls can be great at everything they do. They can be in love, be tough, have jobs and not sacrifice anything, and be able to fly through the air and look great and be brilliant." It's been a bad year for Pascal, an interesting executive whose choices have gotten dumber the worse her movies have done—from Little Women to Charlie's Angels, from Clueless to Hanging Up. "I really want this one to work because it hasn't been the world's greatest year," Pascal told Eller. "It would be great for this to be the beginning of the turnaround. And it's my story." If it's startling to read that the chairwoman of a major movie studio believes Charlie's Angels is her story, it's even more so if you've seen the movie and witnessed Barrymore tongue a steering wheel. Think of it as progress, Hollywood-style: when stupid movies happen to smart women, it's no longer just men who are to blame.
In the seemingly boundless realm of Hollywood vanity projects, few are as genuinely eccentric as The World's Greatest Sinner, an independent movie written, directed, produced and starring character actor Timothy Carey and released in 1962. Instantly recognizable from his basset-hound mug and lachrymose Brooklyn whine, Carey, who died in 1994, is probably best known as the sharpshooter who takes out the racehorse in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). A year later, Kubrick cast the actor as one of the soldiers condemned to the firing squad in Paths of Glory—Carey's Private Ferol is the one sobbing, comically, horribly, unrelentingly, alongside the priest during one of that film's bravura tracking shots.
Carey began acting in the early 1950s and lucked out with bit parts in films such as Crime Wave and East of Eden before securing a kind of immortality with the two Kubrick films. Although he would go on to appear in One-Eyed Jacks, Carey's subsequent run would have remained essentially unremarkable if John Cassavetes hadn't given him meaty supporting roles in Minnie and Moskowitz and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. While these two films along with the pair he made with Kubrick would be enough to sustain Carey's memory, the existence of The World's Greatest Sinner gives that memory a certain something extra. Carey embarked on the project in 1958, finishing it three years later. "I play an atheist who gets people's attention by playing music," he once said of his role. "I graduated from a rock & roller to a politician. . . . He ran for president with Godwritten on his cuffs. I played the part of God Hilliard. I had this cult." And then some—The World's Greatest Sinner has since gone on to accrue its own small following, and there are enough moments of touching weirdness in the film to explain why.
Carey plays an insurance salesman named Clarence Hilliard who becomes a rock & roll singer-cum-crusader whose wiggles, lam suit and oil-slick hair are inspired by Elvis Presley and whose jive is an incoherent pastiche of street-corner huckster evangelism. ("You like a job following me?" "To where?" "To eternal life.") The dialogue, the acting, the cinematography, the editing and the sound are as crude as the story is nonsensical. The film is narrated by a stentorian-voiced boa constrictor, and the music is by Zappa (going by his last name only). Still, despite its technical shortcomings, and despite too many passages that simply stall out—moments during which it feels as if Carey himself had lost focus—The World's Greatest Sinner is more often enjoyable than not. Some of the pleasure is of the sort that fills magazines such as Psychotronic Video (Issue 6 has a nice rambling interview with Carey by Mike Murphy and Johnny Legend), but there's more to the film than its camp fizz, namely real passion. It may be terrible, but at least it's not dishonest.
Charlie's Angels was directed by McG; written by Ryan Rowe, Ed solomon and John August; produced by Leonard Goldberg, Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen; and stars Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Bill Murray. Now playing countywide; The World's Greatest Sinner! A Tribute to Timothy Carey. Now playing at the Egyptian Theater, Hollywood.
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