Charlie’s Angels (2000) is the epitome of how seriously Drew Barrymore takes herself: the hair flips, the silly punk rock past of her character, action sequences so absurdly, self-consciously over-the-top that they make you smile.
Playfulness seems to be Barrymore ‘s signature, what distinguishes her from her lesser rom-com peers. So it wasn’t surprising that this was a film she chose to produce, an ode to a dumb TV show celebrating sexism/female empowerment/both (depending on your point of view).
The show (1976-81)– for those younger folks out there–featured a wealthy but reserved guy (Charlie), who hired three beautiful detectives (the angels) for his agency. All we ever got of Charlie was his voice, as he never appeared in person and let all arrangements be managed by his assistant, Bosley. The term ‘angel,’ use of possessive, Charlie’s condescending voice, the quick rotations of actresses for the roles (suggesting they were interchangeable)—any of the four could make a feminist cringe. But the women were tough and smart, using their looks to blindside unwary men, much as Columbo used his folksiness.
The film is both a parody and tribute, using the TV show’s theme music, graphics, and basic concept, but mocking the silliness of it too. Cameron Diaz plays the supposed airhead (Natalie) to perfection. Lucy Liu takes on the kind of tough role she always plays, even imitating a dominatrix/efficiency expert in one ploy as detective Alex. As Dylan, Barrymore mocks the over-the-top femininity of her predecessors by embracing a badass, punk rock aesthetic. The strange connection the women have to Charlie is brought to the forefront when their client (Sam Rockwell) suggests that Dylan has daddy issues.
Whatever part she’s in, Barrymore always seems to be playing herself, and part of what keeps us watching her is just how likeable she is, this woman who went through a painful past of abandonment and substance abuse as a kid, and emerged as a woman with empathy for those who contributed to the conditions that put her there. She is both the most tender of the three actresses onscreen—Barrymore always captures vulnerability effectively—and the most sarcastic. Perhaps hers is an earned playfulness, but Barrymore wears it lightly. (How else could you repeatedly perform with Adam Sandler, and more bafflingly, not only star with, but marry Tom Green? Tom Green!) While her acting never wows me, she does.
In Drew’s performances, I don’t see much of her forebears, that famous acting dynasty whose members mesmerize audiences still today. Only in her youthful roles did I ever see traces of the Barrymore family’s skill with drama. I would argue that Irreconcilable Differences (1984); an underrated film about a girl who wants to separate from her narcissistic, divorced parents (in an eerie foreshadowing of Barrymore’s own decision years later); was her strongest dramatic role. Perhaps it just was a part she knew really, really well.
But usually, the actress just prefers, and does better, at comedies. Certainly, Drew lacks the intimidation or gravitas of her great-uncle Lionel…
Of course, her troubled past brings to mind her grandfather’s. But it’s in her self-deprecating goofiness that I see the clearest link to the Barrymore dynasty. While it’s certainly not present in all of the Barrymores’ roles, I see it in John’s charming turn in Grand Hotel, and, of course, in his hilarious supporting character in the glorious Midnight (1939). There’s such a lightheartedness to his approach to the role of Georges Flammarion, and though he was already at the cue card stage of his decline, his humor, at least, had not reached the self-parody stage.
Such lightheartedness is key to Dylan’s (Drew Barrymore’s) character, even when she’s in the direst straights. In the best action sequence in Charlie’s Angels, Dylan has been tied up by her sleazy client, Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell), who has betrayed her after sleeping with her, and tried to kill her already. Knox departs to perform his nefarious schemes, leaving her to his five henchmen. After managing to get her lighter back, she spells out what she will do to escape, buying time but also revealing her confidence.
As she sits in her chair, she calmly explains, smiling at her adversaries all the while, “By the time this is over, every one of you is gonna be face down on the floor, and I’m gonna moonwalk out of here.”
As they rush toward her, she interrupts, looking at each man in turn, “You’re not listening to me. See first, you’re gonna help me out of my chair, and then I’m gonna leapfrog over you, before I break his nose…I’m gonna do all of this with my hands tied behind my back.”
You can see the full clip here.
Any actress could have had fun with such a sequence, but there’s so much self-amusement in Drew Barrymore’s portrayal that I kept thinking of her grandfather in Midnight. Sure, he had much more range and talent than she does, but in self-amusement, the two are matched.