Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Misérables: Blockheaded Blockbuster

Isabelle Allen and Hugh Jackman in Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, now in theatres

Les Misérables is one of those blockbuster musicals that has never received or needed critical approval, like Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia! and the entire oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The same can be said of a handful of American musicals, most recently Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but mostly it’s a European-import phenomenon. By the time Les Mis began its first Broadway run twenty-five years ago, its effect was a bifurcation of the musical genre into shows – a handful every season – that essentially perpetuate the traditions of the Broadway musical and those, like those listed above, that target tourists, groups and devoted repeat attenders. If you score with that sort of hit, critics are extraneous. I saw Spider-Man early in its notorious preview run, while Julie Taymor was still associated with it, and the immense theatre that housed it was packed to the gills with kids in Spider-Man costumes chaperoned by their parents. A couple of the cast members had already sustained injuries, the show had become simultaneously a scandal and a media joke, but it was clear that no matter how long it stayed in previews (months, as it turned out) and how dreadful the reviews would be (pretty dreadful), parents would continue to truck in from the suburbs or from out of town with their eager offspring and keep the musical running at capacity.

I’ve seen some of these shows out of some combination of professional obligation and curiosity (I skipped Miss Saigon and I just can’t get myself to one of Webber’s shows, because the music drives me insane) – including Les Mis, which I checked out during the first of its national tours. (It’s been in revival so often, and there have been so many national tours, that it feels like the show has been running non-stop for a quarter of a century.) I ducked out at intermission, which came after nearly two hours; I felt I’d got my money’s worth. The Trevor Nunn staging was impressive: he worked ingeniously against the revolve and some of the stage pictures were nifty. But except for the “Master of the House” number, performed by the innkeeper Thénardier, all of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music blended together into The Ballad or The March, and by ten p.m. I figured I’d heard plenty. I confess I’ve never been a fan of the material anyway. A friend once assured me that, as a lover of Dickens, I’d be sure to respond to Victor Hugo, but I tried the novel twice and couldn’t get very far; I felt oppressed by the layers of banal detail. Nonetheless, historically it’s an important work because it embodies the elements of Romanticism. It has an outlaw hero: Jean Valjean, who goes to prison for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his nephew from starving and who is dogged by the intractable Inspector Javert for breaking his parole. Its sympathies are populist, it’s loaded with melodramatic plot twists, and it’s set against the teeming background of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. And with all that spectacle and all those characters in high dudgeon, it’s been a favorite of moviemakers: Tom Hooper’s new movie of the musical marks the eighth film version. (Half have been in French, half in English.)

Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
Whatever you think of these blockbuster musicals on stage, that’s where they should probably stay; the camera, which can be a friend to a good musical, exposes bad ones cruelly. So just how terrible is the movie of Les Mis? Well, it’s not quite as awful as The Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia! (On the other hand, Rent was a little better: it had a strong opening number and some talented, charismatic performers.) But it’s terrible enough. It’s lethally dull: two and a half hours that feels like four. The movie credits a raft of writers, from Schönberg and Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel, who wrote the French libretto (the musical began as a French concept album and eventually opened at a Paris sports arena before Nunn staged it for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican in 1985), to Herbert Kretzmer, who penned the English lyrics, James Fenton, who wrote additional text, and William Nicholson, who did the screenplay. Yet there’s virtually no spoken text. And since it’s through-sung, you never get a rest from those bathetic, pumped-up songs, which bear the same resemblance to real show music that the sweets that Starbucks sells bear to the offerings at a real French bakery.

The movie adds insult to injury: the direction is appalling. Hooper did everything right on his last picture, The King’s Speech (where, admittedly, he was working from a first-rate script), but he doesn’t seem to have a clue how to put together a musical. The hyperbolic editing by Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver is at odds with the rhythms of the numbers, so even the one decent song, “Master of the House” (performed with considerable wit by Sacha Baron Cohen as the thieving innkeeper and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife and partner in crime), can give you a headache. (Danny Cohen’s exhausting choreography doesn’t help.) The movie overdoses on close-ups that pinion the actors like butterflies in a case. And Hooper does no better with the battle scenes, where the doomed revolutionaries face off the army, than he does with the numbers. Occasionally the staging is inadvertently hilarious, as in a shot of the body of one of the revolutionary leaders (Enjolras, played by the TV and Broadway-musical actor Aaron Tveit) hanging upside down from a window and the scene where Javert (Russell Crowe) hurls himself into the Seine because his unyielding, deterministic view of human behavior is irrevocably unsettled by the kindness and heroism of Valjean, a man he assumed to be rotten through and through because he served prison time. (I’m guessing at Javert’s motivation here; I assume that his fate makes more sense in the novel.)

Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne
When the actors aren’t fighting the camera or the editing, they’re fighting the music and Hooper’s (or somebody’s) unwise coaching to sing as often as possible through tears, in case we don’t get the message that the story is really, really sad. The publicity for the movie makes a big deal of the fact that the singing wasn’t post-recorded, but that isn’t much of an advantage when most of it sounds horrible. Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean, has demonstrated his musical-theatre chops elsewhere but here he screams almost all of his music; so does Crowe – and he can’t sing. He’s bizarrely miscast as a devout Catholic cop who is incapable of veering one degree from his view of human behavior; both men give stiff, two-dimensional performances. Anne Hathaway fares better as Fantine, the factory worker who is fired by the lecherous foreman she won’t give a tumble to and then, ironically, winds up selling her body to make ends meet. She gets to sing the show’s hit ballad, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which she discharges effectively until, in the last third, she too is bitten by the melodrama bug that infects almost the entire ensemble. Eddie Redmayne, in the juvenile lead (he plays the idealistic Marius), sings sweetly, and he and Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine’s daughter Cosette, whom Valjean raises after Fantine dies, make an attractive couple. Seyfried is one of the most appealing ingénues in movies right now and she certainly looks smashing in Paco Delgado’s period gowns. But she has a high, tiny voice that can’t answer the demands of the music. (Given the quality of that music, I’d hardly say her shortcomings are a tragedy.) Samantha Barks isn’t bad as Éponine, Thénardier’s daughter, whose love for Marius is unrequited.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter seem to have wandered in from some other movie – Sweeney Todd, presumably, to which Hooper includes a nod in one of their scenes. They bring the entertainment quotient of the film way up when they appear, but they don’t have nearly enough to do, even when they return in the second half as full-time thieves. The last hour is focused on the June Rebellion but it doesn’t contain a single exciting moment, just more of that infernal music. When Valjean finally expires at the end, Fantine’s ghost and the ghost of the bishop (Colm Wilkinson) whose faith turned him from an outlaw into a hero pop up to escort him to heaven, where all the revolutionaries who died on the barricades are still singing “One More Day” (or The March, Second Variation). I couldn’t help thinking as I headed gratefully for the exit, “Le miserable, c’est moi.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Each word of this untruer than the last. Wonderful show, this "Les Mis." shows an 82 percent "like" rating. Who do you believe, the majority or the malcontent? Smart choice.