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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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The 2014 big-screen edition of the over-exposed musical Annie seems to have been intended as an urban fantasy that’s meant to combine the joys of the original with an updated story and a few new songs.

This Annie only occasionally does justice to the original material and, at the same time, fails to stake out enough turf of its own. It’s like a third-rate comedy with musical numbers and a spunky 10-year-old kid who wanders through a Manhattan that’s imagined with lollipop sweetness.

Foxx and Wallis sing and dance for Manhattan
Foxx and Wallis sing and dance for Manhattan

Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) now lives in a Harlem foster home. She believes that the parents who left her at a restaurant when she was an infant someday will return.

But Annie isn’t only about the need for a girl to shed a harsh Dickensian childhood. It’s about the way a plucky waif becomes the instrument by which an ambitious businessman turned politician (Jamie Foxx) can be humanized.

Thanks to some glaring plot contrivances, Annie’s taken under wing by Foxx’s cellphone billionaire, a corporate baron who also happens to be running for mayor of New York City. Foxx’s Will Stacks crosses paths with Annie when he keeps her from being hit by a speeding car. Filmed by a bystander, Stacks’ rescue goes viral.

Why not, asks the billionaire’s crass campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale), lift Annie from her hard-knock life and let her live in a gleaming, aggressively modern apartment with a billionaire? Surely, voters will swoon.

The super-rich Stacks has political ambitions, but he’s not much of a people person. He keeps himself emotionally isolated, and has a Howard-Hughes-like obsession with germs.

In this version, Wallis takes over from the red-headed dynamo type that usually plays Annie, something the movie accomplishes in an energetic opening sequence that finds Annie pushing a red-headed schoolmate off center stage so that she can present a lesson on FDR to her classmates.

Wallis impressed just about everyone by playing a Louisiana six-year-old named Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here, she may be working a little too hard.

Director Will Gluck makes room for the adult cast members, but saddles them with material that’s straining to shed its Depression origins.

Cameron Diaz does everything she can to overact as Miss Hannigan, an embittered show-biz reject who takes care of foster children — for the money, of course.

Both Diaz and Cannavale give the kind of out-sized performances you might expect to see in a children’s theater production, and, at times — though not consistently — the movie seems to be aimed at the youngest audience segment.

Rose Byrne never quite finds a niche as Stack’s assistant.

Look, I like the idea of a multi-ethnic Annie. And why not update material that’s been done to death? It’s just that Gluck hasn’t been able to do it in a truly meaningful and exciting way.

You know the filmmakers have run out of imaginative gas when, toward the end of the movie, they add a helicopter chase sequence. It saves Annie, but not a movie that’s too wobbly to ensure that it finds a place in the sunshine — either today or (as Annie optimistically promises) tomorrow.