Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Dir. Elizabeth Banks. Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska

The Angels (angels? It somehow feels weirder not to capitalize it) are betrayed. Sabina (Stewart) has a moment not unlike that one that David Niven’s character has in The Guns of Navarone, where she says something along the lines of “Boy, it sure seems like every step of this mission has been way harder than it should be, do you think there’s a mole?” There is a mole. It’s the original Bosley (Patrick Stewart), who is not at all suspiciously forced into an early retirement in the first ten minutes or so of the movie, and he’s not happy about having been forced out early. This is, to say the very least, an enormous letdown. Sabina’s first instinct is that it’s their current Bosley (Banks) who has sold them out. This makes sense, even though the fact that Sabina speaks this suspicion means that it’s impossible for it to actually pan out that way. Rebekah has been involved in every step of this mission regarding a power source called Calisto, and her buddy-buddy banter and her closeness with this team would make her betrayal particularly sharp. She has acted as a mentor rather than just a friend for Elena (Scott), and the fact that she’s been an Angel in the past means that there are multiple levels of perfidy here. It would be a terrific moment: an Angel chooses to reign in Hell, she has burned her charges in doing so, and the personal bonds between these people turn out to be lies. What John is masterminding from the shadows is not even a betrayal; it’s just another garden-variety plot from a villain who has been absent for the vast majority of the movie and who is relying primarily on a British accent in lieu of any kind of personality. It’s kind of incredible to watch this story decision made in real time: they choose the villain who is somehow less personal than like, the earthquakes from San Francisco or San Andreas to anchor the back half of the movie. To be sure, “anchor” is not the right word here.

There would be some real stakes in watching Rebekah break bad, even if the breaking was short-lived. For example, John fires on her and appears to kill her when he shows up at the burning safehouse and scurries Elena out. It’s a bold sequence of events, and one of the most legible action sequences of the movie to boot. John has caught up to Rebekah, in this version of events, coming out of retirement in order to protect the most naive, idealistic, and brilliant of the three from a heinous plot. However, Charlie’s Angels cannot conceive of one particular sin, and that sin is a woman wronging another woman. This falls rather short of politics. I’m not sure it’s got anything more to it than playground wish fulfillment, that what if girls could all just get along. Sometimes girls are a little tough on one another, and they’re not perfect—we’ve watched Elena accidentally frag herself with a mint-sized taser from an Altoids package already, Sabina has been to jail, and Jane (Balinska) is ex-MI6, which the movie almost has the guts to suppose it might be a bad thing—but they don’t let each other down. Jane comes closest to having let down another woman, Fatima (Marie-Lou Sellem), a contact she cultivated during her MI6 days who she left in the lurch because her bosses told her to. In the end she makes things up to Fatima adequately, and that particular breach is pasted over. Otherwise, I cannot think of any “girl-on-girl crime,” to quote a superior movie about how women interact while under severe pressure, which is committed by the Angels.

The movie chooses a dinky message in lieu of an interesting, sensible choice, and so it’s hard to know what to do with Charlie’s Angels. If a movie is making silly choices because it’s got some dumb politics on the brain, it’s hard to know where to even begin with it. I could have watched God’s Not Dead, gotten equally dumb sermonizing, and saved myself a trip out to Ohio to talk to some Trump voters in a diner. On the other hand, I’ve saved myself a trip to New York or L.A., where I could have gone into some pristine boardroom and been fed a great number of platitudes about girlbosses. The Angels never do seem to struggle all that much, whether it’s against the patriarchy or whether it’s against their foes. They fight in twos or threes and take down much greater numbers than their own, no matter how armed everyone else is or what kind of obstacles there are in the setting they’re kickboxing through. Sabina is from the poor little rich girl catalogue; Jane doesn’t sweat while she unloads any number of physical blows that I cannot dream of accomplishing myself; Elena is the kind of character who might study because there are so many colors of highlighter to use, not because she’s dumb enough to have to. When Bella Swan, Princess Jasmine, and the daughter of a celebrity chef get together, what obstacles could they fail to overcome? In a late scene, the Angels, who are in some minor peril, are saved by the presence of Angels who had previously shown up on screen for three to six seconds earlier in the movie and are now revealed to be part of the sisterhood with them. I mean, could you imagine if women just stuck together? There’s nothing they couldn’t do!

We’ve seen this particular effort before, and despite all the sound and fury about what the Rotten Tomatoes score it’s “earned,” that effort is a better one. A popular franchise being recast with a greater sensitivity (ish) for how women should be depicted is exactly what the 2016 Ghostbusters is all about. That movie was funny. It had women who actually seemed to have some chemistry with one another; I bought that Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy might share similar goals and ideals and hopes and work for them, which is not something I ever believed about any of the people in this film. It had an out-of-this-world himbo performance from Chris Hemsworth, which was effectively satirical. Charlie’s Angels runs with “don’t trust a straight guy unless he’s Netflix’s sweetheart,” which doesn’t have quite the same effect. Ghostbusters had genuine laugh lines, as opposed to whatever is going on in Charlie’s Angels. There’s a scene in this film where Rebekah drops a reference to Birdman of Alcatraz which gets everyone into a long discussion about who’s Birdman and who’s Batman and how old everyone is. This is a joke which I feel like I may have been the literal target for, and I was embarrassed by the execution. I couldn’t actually watch the scene unfold because I was looking at the floor, because the execution was cringey in the extreme. Once again: a film which is so intent on making sure we understand its Goop-level politics is not likely to transition keenly from “painfully earnest” to “offhandedly charming.” (It’s possible that this would have worked with a different Rebekah, but I’m not going to bet on it. Banks is a real drag whenever she’s on screen, which, despite how little I think of this movie, is not actually something I think about any of the other women in the film.)

All in all what makes the movie worth watching, and this is sort of stretch given the presence of “screenshots” and “clips on YouTube,” is Kristen Stewart in a series of increasingly ludicrous outfits doing increasingly ludicrous things. Whether it’s a dance sequence which proves that she is not actually any better at dancing than I am (Stewart’s first flaw, had to happen sometime), a sparkling sequined dress that makes her look like a contestant on Toddlers and Tiaras, or a possibly iconic pink jockey outfit with a bowtie that she does not seem to realize is utterly insane, it’s all terrific. Stewart is not quite funny, although that description makes her a veritable Carol Burnett in this company. It’s weird to say this, but the unpretentious way she carries herself in a movie like Personal Shopper carries over to this film in its own way, a kind of comfort with looking any kind of way, this sense that any setting is something to bear and not to enjoy. In a perverse kind of way, one of the best ways to prove that you’re a movie star is to star in movies which kind of suck and then see if you’re still worth watching. Kristen Stewart qualifies.

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