Sometimes I like to imagine a world without pain. Such a world would not allow for the existence of remakes. The only reason a remake should ever be brought about is because it adds to or changes the original in a significant way. The other reason involves large numbers and a certain symbol on the top line of your keyboard, but I'd prefer to forget about that.
The "Little Orphan Annie" story has plenty of room for interpretation. At the center of it should always be a little girl with indomitable optimism, in spite of her status as an orphan (or, as this year's model would have it, a foster child). But hers could be a darker story, one that involves emotional turmoil, constant upheaval, and an inescapable feeling of instability. Children who go through the foster care system frequently have the inability to establish lasting relationships, for obvious reasons. Casting Quvenzhané Wallis in the role of this character could have been a stroke of genius, considering her origins as Hushpuppy in 2012's brilliant Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which her character is rocked by poverty and a terribly unreliable father figure. She, too, looks at the world on the bright side, but you never lost the sense that the walls were always closing in.
If that's the angle you were going for, you wouldn't have gotten Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits) to direct. With Easy A, Gluck flirted with the possibility of burrowing into real issues of slut shaming and sexuality, but ultimately dodged them in favor of a traditional romantic comedy approach—one that he rode all the way to the bank. Now, he has made a "new" version of Annie, the only advantage of which is that there are more characters of color in the cast, and that's about it. Completely eschewing the idea of recasting this story in a different, more compelling light, he prefers instead to retread the approach of the 1982 John Huston version, minus the heart, charm, and expert filmmaking.
Annie is a ten-year-old who lives with four other girls in the cramped Harlem apartment of Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), an alcoholic has-been singer who has transformed into a trashy welfare queen ("$157 a week!"). Annie believes that her parents are still alive, and will come back for her at the Italian restaurant where they abandoned her. While trying to save a stray shiba inu on the streets, she is saved from being struck by an SUV by William Stacks (Jamie Foxx), the billionaire CEO of a cell phone company, Stacks Mobile. He is on a mayoral campaign, and his campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Cannavale, who has dollar signs for eyes), convinces him to leverage a temporary adoption of Annie to boost Stacks's ratings at the polls. Annie, too sharp not to be in on the deal, acquiesces, and finally gets to enjoy the life she's always hoped for.
This version of Annie is a massive production, clocking in at $65 million, a portion of which was contributed by mega-rich black celebrities such as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, along with Jay-Z and his friends Ty Ty and Jay Brown. Given the people behind this film, you'd assume that there would be something more interesting going on in terms of the character's race, and how that is related to her status as an orphan. Furthermore, there is also the inversely probable situation in which a black man is a billionaire CEO (other, of course, than Jay-Z himself), but both those scenarios are completely ignored. This remake is pure, cynical reproduction, through and through, with a hack director at the helm and a source of funding that is too distracted to do anything but provide money. Annie's race is treated as a joke (a white couple attempts to claim to be her parents), and Stacks's achievements are attributed to "hard work," despite his origins from a poor family from Queens.
Consider, for a moment, how an actually orphaned little girl might look at Annie. There is nothing to aspire towards, because she encounters this billionaire in a completely accidental way, and her eventual union with him has more to do with plot convenience than an actual connection. We get several scenes of Stacks spending time with Annie, and he becomes charmed by her improvisational approach to cooking, as well as her forthright, intelligent nature. Understandable. Yet when a significant wedge is driven into their relationship (Annie becomes convinced that Stacks tried to get rid of her once his campaign perked up), the film glosses over that more quickly than it came about in the first place.
This film could have been partially salvaged by the actors, all of whom are often excellent in other productions. Here, however, they range from merely serviceable to excruciatingly miscast. Wallis is delightful when given the opportunity, yet she is often undone by the weak script by Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna. Foxx is competent, although his character is distractingly germaphobic with a weak gag reflex, causing him to inanely rub Purell onto his hands and to vomit up food in several occasions. Rose Byrne plays his assistant, Grace, and she is no singer. The worst of all are Diaz and Cannavale, though. Diaz is strident and ludicrous as Miss Hannigan, two character traits that Carol Burnett embodied hilariously in the 1982 version, but ones that Diaz makes painful to watch here. Canaveral is woefully miscast as Guy, alternately behaving like a buffoon or a callous jerk, none of which makes him likable or entertaining to watch.
The economy is terrible, the foster system is more or less broken, and the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Annie is positioned as children's entertainment, as it should be, but the lessons it teaches about the world we live in are tone-deaf at best, and destructive at worst. In terms of this story, it's already tomorrow, and the sun is nowhere to be found.