Donen and writer Peter Stone's beloved original was less about the hunt for The Truth -- a dead husband named Charlie, his hunted widow Regina, missing money, thieves and double agents lurking in Parisian shadows -- than it was a star vehicle for a middle-aged Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Donen and Stone were having too good a time mocking the genre -- then the provenance of the lecherous James Bond -- while riffing on the disparity between the actors' ages -- Grant was 59, Hepburn a mere 34. As Bruce Eder points out in his liner notes to the Criterion Collection DVD, Charade possessed "an elegance more akin to a '50s romance than a '60s thriller" because of its stars, and even now we watch Charade not because it's a great movie, but because, with Grant and Hepburn as our tour guides, it feels like one.
Demme wanted to remake Charade to give Beloved's Thandie Newton a vehicle worthy of her estimable and thus far underused charms -- she's as graceful talking as she is walking, though you'd never know it from John Woo's clumsy M:I2 -- and to make his own nouvelle vague movie on the same Parisian boulevards captured in the fierce and feverish works of François Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Agnès Varda. The latter is why his film is stocked with references to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and why it's loaded with appearances by such French new-wave icons as singer Charles Aznavour (star of Piano Player and stealer of scenes here), Anna Karina (ex-wife of Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her in such films as A Woman Is a Woman), and Varda herself, director of Cleo From Five to Seven.
Their proximity to a revolution has brushed off on Demme, who zigs and zags and drags his camera through Paris with an abandon he hasn't displayed since his days toiling on the Roger Corman assembly line or shooting Something Wild. Demme will often go on a tangent, giving us digital-video flashbacks of events that never occurred; we're in the heads of our characters, witnessing their rampant imaginations. And he will drop in characters who aren't even there: Aznavour moans on the soundtrack, when suddenly he's standing next to Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg, serenading them in a hotel room. But Demme never takes us out of the movie; in fact, all his tricks only draw us in further. We're leaning in, savoring the moment when a filmmaker has faith enough in himself, and his audience, to allow the small detours to become the best part of the trip.
But this is as much Newton's picture as it is Demme's; she's in nearly every frame, and her echo resonates in the handful of scenes in which she doesn't appear. It's little wonder every character -- from Wahlberg's Joshua Peters, the beret-sporting American whose concern for Newton's Regina elicits only suspicion, to Christine Boisson's sardonic, chain-smoking police commandant -- falls for her; she seduces by accident, by just opening her mouth (at times, she sounds very much like Hepburn) or furrowing her brow. Demme, the rare male director to frame women in the center of the screen, never allows her to play victim or fool; Newton's being pursued, by alleged government officials (a wonderful Tim Robbins, channeling Walter Matthau's sleazy charm) and a multiculti trio of would-be baddies (including Silence of the Lambs' Ted Levine, huffing and puffing), but you never worry for Regina. She's stronger and smarter than all of her shadows -- sexier, too, which counts for everything when you're being passed around the dance floor while Anna Karina coos-croaks from the nearby stage.
If there's anything wrong with The Truth About Charlie, it's Wahlberg, who seems confused about who or what he is -- bad guy or just bad actor. Everyone else looks like they're having a blast; he appears to be just keeping pace, catching his breath. You keep wishing he were, oh, Matt Damon or Brad Pitt, someone more elegant, who doesn't vanish when standing next to Newton. Then again, that's probably impossible.