For a band that’s toiled in obscurity for decades, Sparks is finally finding themselves squarely in the spotlight this year. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival back in January, The Sparks Brothers is a documentary/love letter from director/fanboy Edgar Wright covering 50 years of the duo’s idiosyncratic work in the music industry. Now comes Annette, an undeniably eccentric but frustratingly hollow musical that Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael conceived with French writer/director Leos Carax. Its oddball energy and conviction to its own brand of strangeness would suggest the singular vision of a stubborn auteur but apparently, this trio of outsiders found a common ground upon which to craft this audacious but arduous melodrama.

Meet Henry McHenry (Adam Driver). He’s a stand-up comedian whose persona hinges on the premise that he’s the last person who should be performing on-stage. He appears to crowds disheveled in a bathrobe, murmuring petty observations with his back to the audience, generating comedy from the mere fact that no stand-up in their right mind would go forward with this act. Somehow, McHenry has captured the affections of luminous opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), whose international popularity in the theater scene means that the couple is plagued by paparazzi nearly everywhere they go. With the world watching, Henry and Ann welcome their daughter Annette in the world but struggle to raise her together as Henry’s career stalls out while Ann travels the world to perform for sold-out crowds.

Beginning in a recording studio where the Mael brothers (playing themselves) address the audience and launch into the cheeky, walk-and-sing opener “So May We Start”, Annette benefits from an infectious and lively energy from the first frame. Sadly, it’s mostly a tease, promising a fun and rambunctious challenge to the conventional musical when what follows is a moody half-opera with saturnine pacing. It’s a film whose narrative shifts quite wildly around the halfway mark, following a tragic turn that has McHenry and an accompanist played by Simon Helberg renegotiating their relationships to Ann and Annette. Both halves are held together by themes from the allure of fame to the bounds of artistry, exploring the efficacy of entertainment in profoundly weird and sometimes unsettling terms.

Driver is quite excellent throughout, disarming our inclinations to write off his narcissistic protagonist by committing fully to his beguiling but compelling anti-comedy schtick. It’s hard to know where “McHenry” stops and McHenry begins, creating a line that Driver has some serious fun dancing around. He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice out there but as we found out from La La Land a few years ago, you don’t need world-class pipes to weave together some movie magic. His conviction to such a deranged but magnetic central character reminded me of his work in the similarly cockeyed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, doggedly holding the center in both of the deeply out-there tales.

The Sparks-crafted music that serves as the backbone for this project bares the off-kilter and droll watermark the duo has perfected over the decades but the coinciding lyrics are often redundant and deprived of subtlety. When Driver and Cotillard croon the lines “we love each other so much, it’s so hard to explain” over and over at one another, I actually laughed at how unsophisticated the underlying sentiment was and I don’t think that’s what Carax and crew intended. Then again, there are quite a few fourth-wall breaks, including a number where Helberg’s character spills his heart out to the audience while apologizing for having to get back to conducting an orchestra, so maybe I’m just not fully in on the joke. Those who want to take a dive in the deep end may give Annette the attention it demands but your best bet may be to stay out of the pool altogether.

Score – 2.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Reminiscence, a sci-fi thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson about a scientist who discovers a way to relive his past and uses the technology to search for his long lost love.
Playing only in theaters is The Night House, a psychological horror film starring Rebecca Hall and Sarah Goldberg about a widow who begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
Also playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+ is PAW Patrol: The Movie, an adaptation of the popular animated children’s series starring Iain Armitage and Marsai Martin which finds the band of pups up against the evil mayor of their city.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup