a theatre, film & pop culture review
I didn’t think it was possible to hate director Mr. Hooper’s latest work as much as I despised his last (and oh! how I despised it!), but turns out it’s more than possible.
We all know the story and the epically popular megamusical it’s based on, but just in case you’ve been stuck under a rock for, oh, a century and a half, let’s recap: In 1862, French novelist Victor Hugo wrote the epic tome Les Misérables. Widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, it’s a dry read about the entire history of France that consists of an extraordinary number of subplots and hundreds of one-dimensional characters who pop up for a scene or two each, never to be heard from again. It’s quite maddening, actually.
Glory be, then, to Monsieurs Schönberg and Boublil for creating one of the most delightful and guiltiest of musical pleasures of all time! They cut out all the God stuff (zzzzzz) and trimmed so much of the book’s fat (Parisian architectural history, moral philosophy, discussion of the pros and — mostly — cons of the monarchy) that, even with the remaining zillion characters that somehow didn’t get guillotined, the musical became a simple story about a simple guy who stole a loaf of bread, got thrown in the brink for 19 years, became an upstanding citizen upon his release but was still stalked by an evil police inspector, rescued a prostitute’s kid from a couple of kleptomaniac losers, and then died, declaring “to love another person is to see the face of Gooooooooood!” And, naturally, this all occurs in the foreground of a little-known event called the French Revolution and with a couple of swoon-worthy love stories thrown in for good measure. In other words: this is the quintessential 1980s Broadway megamusical slash pop opera (no talking, all singing!) replete with teary ballads, soaring anthems, and dancing prostitutes, and it all goes down on a revolving stage (because… it can!). You laugh, weep, perhaps even hum along. It’s an absolute joy.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of this latest adaptation. There are some ok moments in the film, though, thanks to a (partially) hardworking cast. By far the most dedicated, Anne Hathaway, as the single-mom-prostitute Fantine, emotes the shit out of her 20 minutes on screen, all tear-streaked cheeks and vein-popping vocal strains in her big my-life-is-an-epic-disappointment number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” She’s not the best singer in the world, but she gets the job done, and apparently that’s enough to get you some major Oscar buzz (I’ll eat my shirt if she wins). Everyone’s favorite triple threat — and sometimes Broadway star — Hugh Jackman also gives his all to the rather boring lead role of Valjean. With solid vocals, Jackman shows necessary restraint in this saintly role, even if the highs of the cruelly falsetto “Bring Him Home” are a little shaky. Everyone else is fine, if unexciting, with one exception (we’ll get to him in a minute), and the single vocal standout is Aaron Tveit who, hey, has actually been in a musical or two! (Imagine that, Hollywood, imagine that.) Too bad he’s relegated to the thanklessly small role of revolutionary Enjolras. But he does what he can, all smoldering looks, fierce rebellion, and gorgeous voice. Hell, I’d get behind the barricade if he sang-asked me to.
And then there’s Russell Crowe, who one would imagine in a non-musical adaptation would actually be quite good as the dogged inspector Javert. Then again, maybe not, because it’s not just the vocals that trip him up — and, oh man, they trip him up — but Mr. Crowe is either embarrassed to be in a musical or doesn’t think much of this particular one; he is visibly uncomfortable onscreen. The man simply doesn’t act: blank stare, monotone (his version of singing), and a body so incredibly stiff that it’s a wonder he’s able to run after Valjean for years and years like he does. His is one of those performances so bad that we, the audience, are painfully embarrassed for him.
But considering who directed this drably colored, claustrophobic bore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this film showcases no one’s best work. Everyone’s favorite emotional manipulator (and, god help us, Oscar winner), Tom Hooper, and his best cinematographer bud, Danny Cohen, literally shoved a camera in each actor’s face, in each scene. No wonder Hathaway came off so melodramatically; how could she not when those wide, watery eyes were this close to the camera lens every minute of every take? It’s hard to imagine that this, erm, proximity promotes a safe and encouraging environment for actors, but to top it off, Hooper also makes them sing! Live! Whilst acting! (What have they been doing on Broadway all these years? Certainly not that for 8 shows per week.) Considering that nearly all the actors in this film aren’t singers, it’s like throwing Katie Holmes on stage for the first (and second) time and asking her to project properly; the point being that it’s not going to end well.
With cameras swooping in and out, jerking around like the nauseating handhelds in The Blair Witch Project, the result of such invasive intimacy is an unrelenting claustrophobia — and an extreme annoyance. Surely Paco Delgado’s costumes are beautifully torn rags, but who really knows since we never get to see anyone below the shoulders. Too much screen time is given to nasty yellowed snaggleteeth (well done, by the way, Chris Lyons), and, clearly, much effort was expelled on streaking the dirt makeup just so across everyone but Amanda Seyfried’s perfectly pale porcelain cheeks.
When the Hoops does pan out to take in more than dilated pupils and quivering lips, what greets us are not the visual wonders of spectacular musicals, but scenes that are blatantly filmed on sound stages and obviously, and laughably, computer-generated. During the opening number, “Look Down,” in which Hugh Jackman, under a swirling grey sky, helps row a massive ship through crashing CGI waves whilst heaving a ridiculously huge — and hugely and ridiculously symbolic — wooden pole over his shoulder, I wondered: Could Jackman’s Valjean bear the sins of this entire, preposterous film?
Not a chance, miserable ones. Not a chance.
Opened on December 25, 2012 nationwide.
Directed by Tom Hooper; written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer; based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schönberg; music by Mr. Schönberg; lyrics by Mr. Kretzmer; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens; production design by Eve Stewart; costumes by Paco Delgado; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes.
WITH: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier).