Review: Annette — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

The opening number is stupendous. “This is going to be fantastic!” I told myself. But then the movie began.

Scene from Annette
Amazon Studios

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Rating: R

Run Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard

Writers: Ron and Russell Mael

Director: Leos Carax

In Theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime

Man, was I ever ready to love Annette.

It’s directed by Leos Carax, a mad Frenchman who manages just one offbeat film every decade or so (most recently 2012’s Holy Motors), it costars the always-interesting Adam Driver and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), and best of all, it’s a musical with songs by the rock band Sparks, who’ve been on my radar ever since their deliciously twisted 1974 album “Kimono My House.”

The film’s opening had me convinced my anticipation would be rewarded. It begins with the director, off-screen, informing us that “Breathing will not be tolerated during the show. So, please take a deep last breath right now.”

The opening number is stupendous: A tuneful and energetic introduction to the cast, crew, and musicians, all gathered in a recording studio, performing a ditty called “May We Now Start?” Just a few bars in, they burst out on the street, singing and laughing together, following the camera in a continuously shot, spontaneous street party.

“This is going to be fantastic!” I told myself.

But then the movie began.

That initial explosion of delirious camaraderie aside, it is with no little sadness that I must report Annette never comes close to meeting the lofty challenges it sets for itself. Everyone tries hard — really hard — but when it comes to 2-1/2-hour movies, participation trophies don’t quite cut it.

Driver plays Henry, a growling, angry performer who defines himself as a standup comedian. The script tells us he’s blazingly popular, but like too many movie characters who are supposedly top comedians, Henry is just not funny. Comedians Chris Rock and Bill Burr get credit for helping Driver shape Henry’s performances, but the guy seems more like the unholy spawn of Steven Wright and Andrew Dice Clay.

Cotillard plays Ann, a world-renowned opera singer who appears to be the headliner every night at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. As with Henry, the film offers little evidence that Ann is as talented as we’re told she is.

Henry and Ann love each other so much. We know this because they sing a song, “We Love Each Other So Much,” which primarily consists of the lyric, “We love each other so much” repeated 11 times (I counted, and that does not include the reprise).

They also have a daughter, the title character, born about 40 minutes into the film. Her name is Annette, and she is a marionette. A literal puppet. Like a little girl Pinocchio, except in this case dad is the one with the nose. I’m actually not complaining about that; I kind of got used to the puppet baby, and I rather enjoyed watching the actors risking splinters as they pretended to cuddle an actual child.

Henry and Ann never sing a follow-up song called “We Don’t Love Each Other So Much Anymore,” but that’s what happens, and a tragedy on a storm-tossed yacht totally shifts the family dynamic. That leads to the discovery that infant Annette has an uncanny singing voice, which brings her worldwide fame and a fanatical worldwide fan base reminiscent of the adoring adherents in Ken Russell’s Tommy.

That’s about all I care to reveal about the plot of Annette. Aside from Nicholas Cage, there’s no actor today who commits so thoroughly to lost causes as Driver. Neither he nor Cotillard sings very well—and Cotillard’s “opera” performances are actually dubbed by someone else — making Annette is the latest in a long line of films to toss tone-deaf actors into the deep end of the musical pool.

It’s a distracting conceit; one that most recently undermined the musical La La Land, which asked the musically ungifted Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to not only sing, but also dance. As in that film, the stars of Annette seem so deliberate about hitting their notes (some of which are cruelly high for Driver), they take on the appearance of insecure middle schoolers in a Sunday School pageant.

Annette was originally envisioned by Sparks as an audio-only rock opera, and the brothers who comprise the avant-garde group, Ron and Russell Mael, should have stuck with Plan A. I took a long drive, playing the Annette soundtrack, and I found myself often charmed by the rhythms of their repetitive lyrics and minimal melodies. I found I didn’t mind hearing Driver singing, over and over, “I’m a good father” — but watching him tackle the song, attacking each note like a homework assignment, I sensed he was as anxious for it to be over as I was.

Like the operas that made Ann famous, Annette tumbles headlong toward a profoundly sad, tragic end. It’s one more way in which Carax seems determined to undermine the traditions of movie musicals — and one last reminder of why those conventions have for so long worked so well.

Featured image: Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette (Amazon Studios)

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