Charlie's Angels: three bodacious babes, one awful director.

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June 27 2003 1:19 PM

Fallen Angels

Babes? Yes. Director? No.

Full camp
Full camp

It was an ominous sign when star and co-producer Drew Barrymore told the press that the first Charlie's Angels picture (2000) was a seat-of-the-pants affair and that this time—in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (Columbia)—the filmmakers really knew what they were doing. I thought, "Oh, shit." I liked the first Charlie's Angels —a wittily self-aware, Hong Kong-style riff on the old, brain-dead TV series. The movie was reportedly a shambles that needed to be thoroughly overhauled in post-production, but I didn't mind its slapdash editing, which seemed giddily in synch with its leading lady. Barrymore is a gifted comic actress, but part of her charm comes from her amateurishness—from her slightly clumsy, unsculpted body and her sibilant "s." The subtext of the film was Barrymore's pipe dream: "Wouldn't it be a blast if someone like me could be a Charlie's Angel?"

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The subtext of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle is the punishing megalomania of its director, who goes by the name of "McG"—which could be short for "Mecha-Godzilla." McG is a lot more confident this time: He wants to make sure you know he's in on the joke, even if that means upstaging his own movie. So Full Throttle is full-throttle camp: It's like a third-rate AustinPowers picture cut to the whacking, attention-deficit-disorder tempo of Moulin Rouge (2001). McG turns every costume change into a rib-cracking nudge, and he loves to zoom in on his actresses' thighs and cleavage and butt cheeks. But he doesn't trust them to carry any scenes. He chops up their performances and throws in low-comic sound effects and jokey music cues. (When the Angels are drenched by a lawn sprinkler, we get B.J. Thomas singing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.") The script has a fair amount of funny lines (including an in-joke in which an actor boasts that his latest big-budget action movie must be good—"It had 13 screenwriters!"), but McG gives the gags no room to breathe. His jokes are like left hooks to the skull.

You don't talk about actors in a movie like this, you talk about victims. Chief among them, alas, is Barrymore, who tries too frantically to signal that she's having a great time, and who doesn't look so good, either. (She's acted off the screen by Jaclyn Smith, whose face is so tight that it's a wonder she can even open her mouth.) Hot on Barrymore's tail is the new Bosley, Bernie Mac, who does an all-out minstrel-show turn: I can't even bring myself to describe the performance—it's in a different sphere of consciousness than his work on television and in movies like Ocean's Eleven (2001). Lucy Liu is lucky to get the best lines and to play a handful of scenes with John Cleese as her father, who's under the mistaken impression that Charlie is her pimp. If Cleese didn't script these bits himself, they were written by someone who studied FawltyTowers and got the rhythms down cold: The double-entendres are right on the button. Cameron Diaz is the movie's thoroughbred: She's impossible for the camera to violate, and her timing shines through in even millisecond bursts.

One of the happiest things to happen to movies in the new millennium has been the absence of Demi Moore. She's baa-ack. You have to admire Moore for going bod-to-bod with Diaz in a string bikini—and her bod looks fine, more lithe than it did when she was a teenager. But her face is faintly wizened and her acting cheerless. The last time Moore looked like she was having any fun onscreen was St. Elmo's Fire (1985), when she was still a throaty comedian with a touch of baby fat, before she developed a steely obsession with selling herself as the Body Beautiful Featuring Hollywood's Most Capacious Tear Ducts. I figured at least she wouldn't cry in a Charlie's Angels movie. But her character, an ex-Angel, has much pent-up resentment toward Charlie, and the sound of John Forsythe over the speakerphone is simply too painful to bear. … Next up for Moore: Tosca on Gilligan's Island.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.