LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - While there are several possible good reasons to remake the Depression-set musical "Annie" in 2014, none of them seem to have informed Will Gluck's overblown yet undernourished treatment. More of a facelift than an update, the pic dusts off some old songs, adds a few desultory stabs at new ones, and stuffs the frame with shiny upscale gadgets that scream "modern." Featuring a multiracial all-star cast with few pretensions to dancing expertise, the film replaces choreography with metronomic editing, while one-note overstatement drowns out character development. Even without the Sony hacking scandal that caused it to leak online early, "Annie" would seem headed for a lackluster Christmas bow.
The film begins promisingly with a pre-credits sequence wherein Gluck acknowledges the obvious parallel between the Great Depression and the currently widening rich/poor divide: A schoolroom show-and-tell produces a standard-issue, red-haired "Annie A," only to replace her with an afro'd "Annie B" (Quvenzhane Wallis, the Academy Award-nominated waif from "Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Wallis' Annie proceeds to conduct the class in an interactive historical performance piece celebrating FDR's New Deal, no less. But this hint of modern-day hard times, it turns out, is evoked only to be treated as a quaint conceit.
In Gluck's 21st-century version, Annie lives with other girls not in an orphanage but in a Harlem foster home run by bitter, alcoholic Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), lamenting her failed career as a backup singer. Poverty, in this squeaky-clean Gotham, relies entirely on sterile set decoration; a rat under a transparent plastic bowl looks more like an artifact than an actual denizen of Miss Hannigan's apartment.
Racing through the streets for her dog, Sandy (here named after the hurricane, in an utterly superfluous example of contemporization), Annie careens into the film's reincarnation of Daddy Warbucks, aka Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cell-phone billionaire running for mayor, who absentmindedly saves her from an oncoming car. When a video of the rescue goes viral, Stacks' opportunistic campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) arranges a photo session with the adorable moppet, which Annie savvily parlays into room and board in exchange for future photo ops.
Stacks reluctantly installs her in his palatial penthouse, where Annie; Stacks' British advisor, Grace (Rose Byrne); and a Russian-accented social-services bureaucrat (an excellent Stephanie Kurtzuba) delightedly dance and squeal over each instance of runaway opulence. The rest of the plot roughly follows the original, with Annie bringing her patented optimism to bear on the obsessions and bitterness of those around her, dispensing epiphanies and granting salvation with the flash of a smile.
Wallis conveys the energy and perkiness of her character convincingly and charmingly, but lacks even a hint of the desperation that lies behind the belted-out infinite deferral of "Tomorrow." Indeed, the entire film lacks any sense of poverty beyond the simple absence of luxury. Unlike the New York of Sidney Lumet's similarly location-transplanted "The Wiz," Gluck's Gotham might as well be Toronto, with Stacks' private helicopter swooping among the shiny glass skyscrapers as yet another bonus of the high life.
The acting in general tends toward the one-note and over-the-top. Foxx, the film's only performer with extensive singing experience onscreen, wisely opts for understatement, but Diaz's slutty dipsomaniac rants on unchecked, her falling-down-drunk numbers as unchoreographed as her would-be comic bits are poorly directed. Byrne's line readings verge on the surreal as she attempts to express Grace's career-gal loneliness by overprotesting her contentment, and Cannavale's dirty-tricks politico makes for a flabby villain. Only David Zayas' turn as Miss Hannigan's eternally ignored but defiantly working-class suitor brings a believable if simplistic sense of class division to the film.
Very young kids may be diverted by "Annie's" wall-to-wall music and nonstop movement; characters rarely pause to take a breath. Special thought was obviously expended on the presentation of the show's Charles Strouse/Martin Charnin standards. "It's the Hard-Knock Life," danced by Wallis and the other tyke actors with occasionally percussive, object-slamming accompaniment vaguely reminiscent of "Stomp" (already feeling more dated than Busby Berkeley), is winningly executed by this exceptionally talented child troupe. By far the film's best incorporation of New York locations occurs in the staging of "Tomorrow": Like Snow White warbling into her wishing well, Wallis starts off singing into a sidewalk rain puddle, while Gluck continues to catch her reflection against plate-glass buildings and the windows of passing buses throughout the number.