Review: A Wholly Original Movie Musical, Annette is Sometimes Messy, Always Enthralling

Ah, the movie musical. That universally beloved genre with its big dance numbers, show-stopping staging and legendary movie stars. The charm. The romance. The wholesome happy endings. And then, there's Annette. The long-simmering musical from filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Sparks (aka brothers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; learn more about them in Edgar Wright's recent documentary), Annette is big and bold, a sweeping generational story about fame, celebrity, ego, capitalism and more (so much more) that mostly works even if it winds up overstaying its welcome at a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes long. Starring Marion Cotillard as an opera singer and Adam Driver as a comedian, the two fall in love and it's their child who is the Annette of the title, a remarkably talented toddler who tours the world, thronged by fans wherever she goes. Annette Image courtesy of Amazon Studios Long before that ever happens, Annette starts right out of the gate as something exciting, original and entirely filled with potential. In a meta opening number, the Spark Brothers themselves (they'll appear again off and on throughout the film in various cameos) begin the film with the aptly titled "So May We Begin," Carax following his collaborators and eventually his cast in a long shot as they walk through downtown Los Angeles and the opening number's momentum builds. If the lyrics are a bit on the nose, it's nevertheless a lively way to begin, drawing the audience in for what's sure to be something special ahead. That the film slowly but surely loses that boisterous energy over the next two hours-plus like a balloon deflating from a small puncture doesn't make it unwatchable—not by a long shot. But it does make it something less than revelatory, and that's a disappointment for a film with so much going for it. Annette's strongest element, by a wide, wide margin, is Driver. Though Cotillard is a worthy scene partner throughout, Driver is the film's mainstay, and it's his journey from provocative comedian (he thanks Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr in the credits, if that gives you an idea of his inspiration) to celebrity dad that is impossible to look away from. Whether in his early scenes as a put-upon performer chastising his audience for their brainless laughter or later as he forges a way forward for him and his daughter after tragedy, Driver is always willing to go there. His commitment to the role is on exceptional display here, and it's a performance that yet again reminds us how capable this former Marine from Indiana is in whatever part he decides to take on. Sure, he can handle Star Wars villainy just fine; but he can also nail quirky pop songs opposite a wooden puppet. Oh, right. The puppet. Once Annette is born, the film tracks the earliest years of her life, meaning Carax had a choice to make: work with infants (and all the red tape that entails) or invest in CGI sufficient enough to realize a life-like toddler with the voice of an angel. Instead, Carax, who's never really done things the way anyone might expect him to, opts for a wooden puppet to represent Annette. (Actually, it's several puppets as the little girl grows up a bit.) Driver and the other main character, only known as The Conductor (Simon Helberg), act (and sing) alongside the puppet as if she's a real child, and it's hard to tell if this dynamic makes the film that much more endearing...or weird. Probably a bit of both. One thing Annette is never short on (in addition to music, that is) is drama; the Mael brothers (Russell is credited as writer, but both get story credit) have crafted a narrative where the hits just keep coming, from a whirlwind romance to a family tragedy to clashing egos and worldwide stardom. Every moment of the film has a song to accompany it, and while never outright ingratiating, the Sparks style of writing no-nonsense, expository lyrics with repetitive melodies does get tired after several acts worth of the stuff. Even as the film runs out of steam, it's never not powerful, as if a sheer force of will by the creative team insists on its own importance. That alone makes the film something worth experiencing, if only because it's always interesting when art so boldly embraces its singular, daring vision. To that end (and just in case it's not already glaringly clear), Annette is nothing like the movie musical classics you may know so well. Though it's at times messy and it often gets lost in its own over-dramatics, Annette is undeniably in a class of its own, an unforgettable cinematic experience bolstered by highly original music and enthralling performances.

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Lisa Trifone