The year of the Sparks Brothers reaches its climax with “Annette,” a long-gestating musical created by droll rockers Ron Mael and Russell Mael.
So what was their fondest wish, after 50 years of flirting with pop stardom as “critical darlings” and pop look pranksters? Apparently, they wanted to attempt a new musical spin on “A Star is Born” in which two stars have a baby who turns out to be a prodigy, a baby played by an animated/animatronic redheaded toddler in director Leos Carax’s (“The Lovers on the Bridge/Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” was his) vision.
So, offbeat? A little bit. Fun? For a bit.
It’s a tragic satire, a commentary on the arc of celebrity, the craving for and eventual weight of fame and what one man will do to maintain it. It practically leaps off the screen in its opening act and steadily sours and slows as it makes its way through a somewhat predictable fall-from-grace saga.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star as a singing performance artist/comic and a famous opera singer whose very public, seemingly-mismatched romance leads to marriage and the oddest offspring this side of “The Dancing Baby.”
Henry McHenry takes the stage in a boxer’s robe and trunks, backed by a quartet in nightgowns for his “mildly offensive evening” as “The Ape of God,” a George Carlin meets Steven Wright deadpanner who stalks the stage, stares “into the abyss,” and jokes-confesses in rhyme and song.
Yes, our stars do their own singing, with Driver a serviceable low tenor, crooning and teasing about “Why did I become a comedian? To make you ‘notice’ what you’ve always surely noticed until I ask ‘Have you ever noticed?'”
His French fiance Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard) sings opera, “where everything is sacred” Henry complains. And she’s always “dying dying dying” every night as she sings opera’s oft tragic repertoire.
They greet each other backstage after their performances. Him — “I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them.” Her? “I saved them.”
This’ll never work. But they marry, have baby Annette, and tragedy strikes and strikes again.
The Maels, who appear here and there in the narrative, have their musical sprint out the gate with the cast — including comic actor/pianist Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory” — parading out of a recording studio, singing their way down a Hollywood street the fun on-the-nose opening number, “Shall We Start?”
Helberg, playing another accompanist (also his role in “Florence Foster Jenkins”) has a nice solo bemoaning his “accompanist” lot in life, and his ambition to be a conductor.
Our lovers sing duets, nude and mid-coitus or on Henry’s motorcycle, and solo complaints and laments — backstage or on the toilet.
“Annette” is at its most operatic in its call-and-response songs between Henry and his devoted audience, paparazzi singing “Give us a SMILE, please” to the couple and in a childbirth scene scored as a musical round — nurses singing “breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out” while the doctors and Henry chant “Push push push!”
As the story takes its turn toward grim, one can feel the bubbles fizzle out of “Annette.” What is darkly comical at first turns just dark, with that damned digitized baby (played by a real child, eventually) hogging center screen.
Cotillard shocks, once of twice, hitting soprano trills that, considering they didn’t let her sing Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose,” impress. And Driver’s stage presence makes up for whatever he lacks vocally in songs that don’t demand range, but simple emotional honesty.
Sparks fans may be more attuned to the music and tone of the humor served up in “Annette.” Then again, considering the playful tunes and stage vamping they’re famous for, maybe not. I found it a movie musical that loses its way when it loses its sense of play.
MPA Rating: R, sexual content, including nudity, language (profanity) and smoking
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks
Credits: Directed by Leos Carax, script by Ron Mael and Russell Mael. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 2:20