Review: 'Annette' stars a wooden baby, and that's the least hollow thing about it
“What is happening with that wooden baby?”
I wrote that in my notes about halfway through “Annette,” a movie in which Marion Cotillard (French) and Adam Driver (large) have a daughter (pine, but I would not rule out spruce).
I will say, I think I figured out the answer to my question. You might, too. That did not make me enjoy a strange movie musical I had been looking forward to for a hot minute. Because if there’s a point in making a movie where all that wonderful strangeness feels like labor, and there’s nary an earworm to be found in the music, then that point is probably as turgid and sweaty as all 2 hours, 20 minutes of “Annette.”
Directed by Leos Carax (previously of the gleefully deranged “Holy Motors”) with a story and music by the Sparks brothers Russell and Ron Mael (recently of the gleefully nerdy rock doc “The Sparks Brothers”), “Annette” had seemingly perfect parents. The premise over-promised, too: provocative stand-up comic Henry (Driver) loves opera diva Ann (Cotillard), and they have a child whose mysterious gift is revealed just as daddy becomes a little too jealous of mommy’s artistic success.
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Honest to goodness, I was even all-in on the wooden baby before I sat through this thing.
While at least fun to look at, “Annette” is the most unpleasant kind of art — conspiratorial, like an in-joke to which you’re just not privy. Wacko cinema has the awesome ability to feel like it’s sharing its mysteries with you. David Lynch is obviously great at it, spurring an entire fandom that works together to puzzle out the symbology of fever dreams like “Twin Peaks” and “Eraserhead.” Sometimes, there's a sense of collective, norm-shattering glee to the absurd (look at something like the cartoon “Adventure Time”) or even a hallucinatory catharsis that comes with sinking into the hot tub of a filmmaker’s trippiest efforts (say, like in “The Lighthouse” or “Mandy”). And certainly, Carax’s own “Holy Motors” — a movie I quite like, for all of its dream logic and repulsive images — is having a ball, and you’re invited even if you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
But that’s not “Annette.” It wields symbols like billy clubs. Driver’s rarely seen not wearing green (jealousy!), and Cotillard’s eating apples like there's a sale on red delicious at Whole Foods (love, but maybe death!). The production design often evokes Hollywood excess filtered through a dollhouse collector's Pinterest, which feels about as cold as you’d imagine. Some of the film’s flourishes are on the right side of daffy — occasionally, the plot will jump ahead with the help of some cheesy YouTube-style gossip reports starring Driver and Cotillard — but nothing really connects into a bizarre whole.
Like an opera, the dialogue in "Annette" often sung, but to call the witless, literal words coming out of the characters' mouths dialogue is a stretch, even when they aren’t singing. Sparks is the prototypical “not appreciated in their time” rock band (this, I learned in that documentary, the philistine that I am). Hey, maybe the singsong-y repetition of simple phrases ad nauseum is the pinnacle of artistic prowess, but I’m the target audience for a musical, and I’ve sung not one word from “Annette” since I finished it. I did, though, wonder if this is what a nail feels like on the receiving end of a ball-peen hammer.
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It’s the wasted potential that hurts the most about “Annette.” The film opens with a meta little one-take song, where Driver, Cotillard, Carax, the Mael brothers and co-star Simon Helberg appear as themselves, doing a Sorkin-ish walk-and-sing to announce that the show is about to begin. There’s real vigor and a cheeky knowingness, which all but dissolves under the weight of the filmmakers’ Diorama of Clever Ideas.
None of the performers, captivating all, make it out from under the rubble, either. Ann’s arc is an afterthought in service of her husband’s plot, and Helberg, playing the opera star’s accompanist with more warmth than the film deserves, barely gets to say (well, sing) lines before he’s ushered off stage.
“Annette” orbits almost entirely around Driver and his portrayal of the petty, adoring, cruel, explosive Henry, who’s massive in every facet. Without his gravitational pull (and, I’ll say it, his workout regimen), “Annette” would cave in entirely. Which is not to say that our erstwhile Kylo Ren can support the whole crumbling enterprise on his Frigidaire-like shoulders. Carax and the Mael bros seem obsessed with giving Driver interminable, joke-free comedy set scenes. The stand-up isn’t actually funny! Oh, what a gag.
Since “Annette” is a tale of fame, power and envy — specifically that of a man who can’t stand not to control the women in his life — we could probably find one of those points we were looking for. That suspiciously marionette-lookin' baby almost demands it. But something tells me — excuse me, bleats repetitively at me — that the work here ain’t worth the reward.
Now, if they’d given Adam Driver a Muppet baby … that would have been a movie.
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Director: Leos Carax
Rated: R for language, some nudity and sexual content.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Watch: In theaters Friday and streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Aug. 20