Jonathan Demme: The '00s
The Truth About Charlie (October 25/02)
The Truth About Charlie casts
Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert, a trophy wife to a wealthy art dealer named Charlie (Stephen Dillane). The film opens with Charlie's murder, the cause of which (as Regina soon learns) is linked to a missing six million dollars. Not coincidentally, Regina meets a mysterious young man named Joshua (Mark Wahlberg) around the same time - and he just happens to pop up whenever she's in trouble. And that tends to happen quite often, with Charlie's three former associates hot on her tail. Add to that a suspiciously helpful United States government agent (played by Tim Robbins), and you've got a formula for a complicated thriller.
The Truth About Charlie has clearly been influenced by the French New Wave films of the '60s, most notably Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (Charles Aznavour, the star of that film, makes an odd cameo appearance here). But unlike the majority of movies to emerge from that era, The Truth About Charlie tends to remain linear and cohesive throughout - as Demme doesn't dabble in the kind of experimentation that Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were famous for. But what he does take from those filmmakers is a sense of urgency in his direction; Demme wisely films many of the in-and-around-Paris sequences with a handheld camera, allowing for a you-are-there kind of feeling.
But where the film falters is in the mid-section, where everything's been established and it's too soon to start wrapping things up. Aside from an exciting foot chase through the streets of Paris (an awfully interesting choice, given that most films set in an exotic locale would have resorted to a high-speed car chase), not much happens. Indeed, most of the film's midsection is devoted to the burgeoning relationship between Regina and Joshua; the only problem is, the two aren't exactly bursting with chemistry. It's hard to believe that Newton's elegant Regina would fall for Wahlberg's thuggish Joshua - a disparity made all-the-more evident when you consider the pairing between Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in Charade, the film that's the basis for The Truth About Charlie.
Still, there's no denying the fact that Demme's crafted one of the most visually arresting thrillers to emerge out of Hollywood in the last little while. And aside from some uneven pacing, the movie proves to be mostly entertaining and even somewhat exciting at times. Oh, and be sure to stick around during the credits for a hilarious Silence of the Lambs reference.
The Manchurian Candidate (April 14/08)
Though unquestionably an above-average contemporary remake, The Manchurian Candidate's effectiveness is ultimately hindered by its distinctly uneven structure and occasional emphasis on less-than-enthralling elements. Director Jonathan Demme's expectedly stark sense of style certainly proves instrumental in drawing the viewer into the unquestionably familiar story, however, while screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris do a nice job of sporadically deviating from the trajectory of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic (ie there are more than a few surprises here for fans of the original). Denzel Washington stars as Ben Marco, a troubled Gulf War veteran who becomes convinced that something sinister happened to his military squadron during a pivotal mission - with fellow officer Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) eventually becoming the focus of Ben's increasingly desperate inquiry. The deliberateness with which The Manchurian Candidate initially moves effectively establishes an eerie, distinctly off-kilter atmosphere, although - admittedly - it subsequently does take a while before one is completely drawn into the proceedings. There's little doubt, however, that the whole thing improves considerably as it progresses, with the slow-but-steady reveal of the story's mystery/conspiracy playing a key role in the film's ultimate success. The uniformly strong performances also merit mentioning, as Demme has elicited some seriously impressive work from leading and supporting cast members alike (Jeffrey Wright, in what essentially amounts to a cameo, is particularly effective here). The end result is that rare remake that manages to retain many of its predecessor's best qualities without sacrificing its own identity in the process, which - as we've come to discover in recent years - is a very rare feat indeed.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains
Rachel Getting Married (March 17/09)
Infused with a pervadingly experimental vibe, Rachel Getting Married can't help but come off as an alternatingly intriguing and maddening cinematic experience - as director Jonathan Demme's unconscionably second-rate visuals often hinder one's efforts at wholeheartedly embracing the movie's well-defined characters. Anne Hathaway stars as Kym, a spunky troublemaker who arrives at her family's country home for the wedding of her older sister (Rosemarie DeWitt's Rachel) following a stint at rehab - with the bulk of the film subsequently revolving around the various matrimonial preparations and traditions that ensue. Demme's efforts at replicating the look and tone of a fly-on-the-wall documentary immediately proves effective at alienating the viewer, as the filmmaker consistently stresses self-consciously low-rent elements that ultimately lend the proceedings the feel of a garden-variety home movie. The inclusion of several mind-numbingly tedious episodes perpetuates scripter Jenny Lumet's arm's-length modus operandi, with a sequence detailing the pre-wedding speeches from Rachel's family and friends - occurring in what feels like real time - undoubtedly the most apt (and downright frustrating) example of this. There does reach a point, however, at which the characters - assisted by the uniformly superb performances - start to grow on the viewer, with the emphasis on increasingly compelling individual interludes (ie Kym delivers a tearful speech to her fellow addicts, two characters engage in a dishwasher-filling competition, etc) playing an instrumental role in the film's eventual about face. Demme almost blows the relatively engrossing ambiance by spending far too much time on the post-nuptials celebration - ie Rachel Getting Married briefly threatens to morph into the Shortbus of wedding movies - yet it's hard to deny the effectiveness of the film's closing minutes. The final result is an endeavor that's sporadically quite entertaining in spite of its shoddy production values and egregiously avant-garde sensibilities, and it's certainly quite clear that the movie would've benefited substantially from a more mainstream approach.