It’s a fair bet that everyone has a friend or relative like this: the funny, endearing, goofy one that always seems somehow out of step with everyone else. They dress wrong, find themselves in impossibly absurd situations from which they must extricate themselves, and are renown for butchering language with inadvertent malapropisms and double entendre. And although you might sometimes get a bit impatient with them, you can’t help rolling your eyes and laughing along with them; they somehow brighten up your own life, which seems so controlled and orderly in comparison to the ridiculous chaos of theirs. Charlie’s Angels is the cinematic embodiment of that goofy person in your life who makes you laugh at their absurdity, and leaves you with the same feelings of bemusement and affection. This isn’t a film that aims to challenge you in any way, nor is it interested in building dramatic tension or supplying intriguing plot twists to keep you guessing. Charlie’s Angels is a film that revels and delights in its own mediocrity, and is unashamed of the smallness of its dreams. This is high concept filmmaking at its best, where the pretensions of films like Mission Impossible: 2 (John Woo, 2000) are blown apart and exposed as absurdities and the superficiality of the film is placed defiantly, brilliantly on display. It’s flawed, inherently stupid and terminally foolish, but there’s no denying your affection for a film like Charlie’s Angels. It lets you in on the joke from the very beginning with its amusing opening titles, and whether it’s nostalgia, effective satire or just big dumb fun, it will worm its way into your affections despite its refusal to delve any further than the shiny, alluring, frantic surface of things.
Charlie’s Angels is a film that never takes the requisite conventions and demands of traditional narrative filmmaking too much to heart. The characters really don’t exist – they have names, but you can’t help thinking of the Angels as Drew, Cameron and Lucy. This may be a problem with the script, but really, there isn’t much of a script to speak of in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to impact in any detrimental fashion on the film itself. What Charlie’s Angels sets out to do is basically throw Drew, Cameron and Lucy against various opponents – literally – and have them kick, hit, punch and flip for five or ten minutes before setting up their next brawl. These fights are so ridiculous – Dylan (Drew Barrymore) knocks out five burly men whilst tied to a chair, Natalie (Cameron Diaz) leaps into the air and lands about seven kicks before returning to terra firma – that we are clearly not expected to at any point buy what we’re seeing. In fact director McG (and you thought enigmatic solo monikers were only the playground of those in the music industry!) stretches all of these sequences so far that we really are in spoof territory. In a nice ironic twist during one action sequence for example, the girls beat the tar out of a posse of men, to the strains of The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’.
It’s an interesting (and impressive) sideline to this film that despite cementing itself firmly in the action genre, the girls never actually take to firearms – the enemy may, but the Angels remain firmly in the realm of physical combat. Certainly Charlie’s Angels has more in common with Austin Powers (Jay Roach 1999) or Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans 2000) than recent remakes like Mission Impossible: 2 or even Shaft (John Singleton, 2000). We get The Matrix (Wachowski Bros., 1999) aesthetics and John Woo style action and all of it is done with such humour that the original sources for this aesthetic/choreographic kitsch seem patently absurd – did we really once take that stuff seriously? The villains are all fairly ham-fisted; they wait obligingly to be defeated and thrashed within an inch of their sorry lives by the girls rather than killing them outright when they have the chance. We know that the Angels must win, and it’s almost as if McG takes that as a given, and disregards any attempt at dramatic tension. What he serves us instead is the humour in escape, the exhilaration of the fall from a great height, and the tangible camaraderie between the actors.
And this is perhaps Charlie’s Angels‘ greatest asset. Certainly Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz look like they’re just clowning around on set, mugging, pulling faces, and completely enjoying themselves, and indeed the ‘bloopers’ in the final credits reinforces the fact that the film is more a bit of fun than any earnest attempt to create something of cinematic significance. Diaz stretches that mouth of hers into the widest smile on film, ditzing around like she did in My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan 1997), mooning hopelessly over boys and fumbling over simple tasks. In an inspired, hilarious nod to the past, though, she does get to do a nice spot of funky dancing when her date takes her to the icon of ’70s hipness, Soul Train. Diaz is an actor who knows no shame, and has no sense of embarrassment to restrict her, so she’s just as happy shaking her arse at the camera in an inspired dance sequence as she is landing four kicks to Kelly Lynch’s face in one spectacular leap. Clearly both Diaz and Barrymore are in on the joke; they get to flick their hair like their TV counterparts, and flash some spectacular bosom. Barrymore, in particular, relishes a sequence in a racing car where she distracts the driver with her ample flesh, aided and abetted by a sudden wind that manages to blow her hair around like a commercial for Clairol. Both women know what they’re doing, are aware of the essential silliness of the project and ham it up brilliantly. In the ‘Sabrina’ role, Lucy Liu seems to take things a little more seriously, but still gets to beat people senseless with a nimble boot, a dominatrix uniform and a little cross-eyed irony. Only Bill Murray, as aide John Bosley, takes a wrong step. It’s almost as if he’s not quite in on the joke, and just rehashes his Stripes/Caddyshack line in comedy, which seems at odds with the knowing absurdity of the women.
In a lot of ways Charlie’s Angels is far removed from the original television show. In the ’70s when the Angels dominated our television screens, they were derided for their superficiality, dismissed as ‘jiggle’ TV. What Barrymore and co. manage to do is place considerable emphasis on the weaknesses of the past – the ridiculous costume changes, the breast obsession, the flimsy plots and silly action sequences – and turn them into this contemporary version’s greatest strength. By flaunting the imperfection with such boldness, Charlie’s Angels aims to beat us to a sense of derision, second-guessing our reaction, satirising the weakness. It’s like an Australian grotesque comedy, but rather than exploiting the weaknesses of people, this films aims to exploit the weaknesses of the original source. And somehow this becomes an almost affectionate nod to the past, as the girls shake their locks and pucker up with lips sparkling with Yardley’s Pot o’ Gloss. The ’70s allusions are cheesy, but not dismissive, and the humour clever enough to also appeal to those not born when Charlie’s Angels graced the small screen. Just remember to leave your copy of Andrew Sarris at home: in the world of Charlie’s Angels, formalism is an evening dress requirement and the French New Wave is a fancy European hairstyle. But these girls are fun and engaging and witty and sometimes that’s enough, and in Charlie’s Angels, where the elements come together so well, it will at least permit you a superficial, brainless, but absurdly enjoyable time.