Thursday 5 December 2019

New model army: "Charlie's Angels"

By the time you read this, the new Charlie's Angels movie will have taken its place alongside Terminator: Dark Fate on the list of the year's biggest studio flops, the two films forming a suggestion that looking over one's shoulder - even with something fresher than the usual male gaze - isn't always the best way to get ahead in Hollywood. The primary creative shortcoming of Elizabeth Banks' film is that it hasn't really worked out what anybody might want from a Charlie's Angels movie, in 2019 more than ever. The original television series (1976-81) remains fondly remembered fluff, but also nothing more than serialised dress-up. The two millennial updates by bikini-shoot/pop promo guru McG made the show's central conceit - Ladies! Doing shit! Kicking ass! - bigger and louder as befitted a movie revival of a distant TV hit, and a little more diverse via the casting of Lucy Liu alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, but as statements of any kind, they proved no more substantial than anything else associated with this not-so-intellectual property, their giggling, money-torching setpieces all but forgotten about after opening weekend. Banks's variant pitches up as substantially cheaper - a mere $48m, as opposed to McG's $100m mayhem; action budgets haven't stretched as far since the 2008 crash anyway - and much less starry: everybody involved should have known it was going to be tough selling a potential blockbuster off the pairing of the two Stewarts, Kristen and Patrick, fine actors though they are. But - hey - ladies! Doing shit! Kicking ass! That's enough, right?

CA 2019 is at least upfront about the cosmetic feminism it wants to trade in: its very first line is "I think women can do anything", and the opening credits duly prove the point with images of women and girls skiing, skateboarding and doing two dozen other things likely to have been frowned upon fifty years ago. The prevailing inclusivity extends to the idea (possibly floated by exec-producer Barrymore) that previous screen Angels represent different generations of the same crimefighting organisation - the film's not an overwrite or reboot, as movies made by (ahem) "visionary" male directors tend to be - and indeed to multiple Bosleys (young/old, male/female, black/white as well as P-Stew) where once there was just David Doyle or Bill Murray to look at. As the new Angels - sparky Sabina (K-Stew), fresh-faced, relatable Elena (Naomi Scott) and tall, athletic Jane (Ella Balinska) - run about in search of the kind of alternative power source that has served as a plot engine in disposable hooey since time immemorial, women get to play at being spies, scientists, seducers and senior management; back at base, meanwhile, their needs are tended to by a hunky Hispanic wellness specialist (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who cracks their backs, plies them with organic produce and encourages them to talk about their feelings. Banks's film is more salubrious than whatever was going on between McG and his Angels - hers isn't a harem but a health spa - yet it's only healthy in the way a candyfloss enema might be: it goes in, comes out, and leaves you with nothing more than a lowish-key sugar high.

In her favour, Banks - who between the Pitch Perfect sequels and this seems to have made it her life's work to become the new Mark Waters - keeps it bright and poppy: even her onscreen location tags assume the purplish shade of an eyecatching nail polish. And she pulls off one legitimate feat of sisterhood in handing K-Stew so many varied outfits and snappy lines that dullards will never again be able to refer to her as "that sulky Bella Swan chick" without being chased away by hordes of fangirls. Something about this production, however unnecessary or doomed it was, appears to have liberated this once recessive performer to strut forward and properly seize the screen, to finally assert herself as a star capable of playing anything thrown her way. (By contrast, Scott and Balinska come over as Neutrogena models with good agents. Call it the Farrah Fawcett effect; call it Twilight: Eclipse.) If I was considering voting for a standout performance in an otherwise indifferent 2019 release, I would absolutely plump for Stewart in this over Joaquin Phoenix in Joker; if the actress goes on to become the great screwball comedienne of her generation - a Rosalind Russell with tats - we may well have Charlie's Angels to thank. That's a way off, however, and for the time being you'll need a pronounced fondness for the innocent idiocy of the early Nineties studio action movie to get all that much out of Banks's film.

With its inevitable makeover montage, wide-eyed excitement at finding itself on location in Hamburg and its straight-laced, not terribly spoofy approach to eminently spoofable material, this Charlie's Angels, somewhat weirdly, seems to date from a time before the aggressively postmodern McG films; it's an example of a throwback that, while pushing all the right progressive buttons, winds up going further backwards still. Then again, it's a movie based on Charlie's Angels, an innately late-Seventies conceit, the best the brightest minds on TV could come up with at that particular moment: it'd take more than the EDM remix of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" Banks slaps on during her finale - ladies! Doing shit! Kicking ass! Beep beep! - to drag that into the 21st century. One consolation for this director, who's reacted with typical good grace to her film's commercial underperformance, is that her Charlie's Angels is exactly that genial, thoroughly undemanding, timekilling flim-flam people will flock to on long-haul flights over the months ahead. It's just that it never provides us with any real reason as to why anybody should race to the cinema to see it right now. The dysfunction of the American studio system runs a whole lot deeper than the Angels' enlightened hiring policies can address; it certainly runs deeper than a movie like this can go.

Charlie's Angels is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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