Director: Tom Hooper
Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 2 hrs. 37 min.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
The new big-screen edition of Les Misérables is like one of those oversized glossy souvenir books you buy in the lobby of a Broadway theater: It's slickly produced, packed with beautiful shots of the cast, and rather quickly disposed of when your life's next big diversion arrives.
Anyone who has seen the lavish stage musical and also loved it (and that two-part distinction is essential) will find much to be thankful for in director Tom Hooper's lavish film adaptation. The vocal work of his cast is uniformly top-notch, and there are moments of true dramatic and visual beauty. But at its heart, Les Misérables is an opera, and no one has ever made a truly great film of an opera, up to and including this one.
Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables is one of those "classics" that even high school lit teachers don't make you read; it's way too long and there are lots of excellent screen adaptations with which to eat up class time. The setup is undeniably awesome: In 19th-century France, a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) goes to jail for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child. Finally released, he breaks his parole to start a new life, and for the next few decades he is pursued from one end of France to the other by a maniacally by-the-book policeman, Javert (Russell Crowe).
I'd have been perfectly happy to spend a few hours with that very cool premise (you'll remember how well it worked, stripped to its bare essence, in The Fugitive). But true to its operatic spirit, Les Misérables is jam-packed with beaucoup de subplots, among them the plight of a single mother (Anne Hathaway) hurled into the streets; Jean Valjean's vow to raise her at-first adorable (Isabelle Allen), then beautiful (Amanda Seyfried) daughter Cosette; the mission of a ragtag army of revolutionaries revolting against France's One Percent; and the blossoming romance between Cosette and one of the rebels.
Some of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg's melodies do stick with you, and at time the score soars. Aside from Hathaway's understated and truly mesmerizing "I Dreamed a Dream," director Hooper has his cast belt out their songs with Ethel Merman-like bombast. Much has been made of the fact that the cast sang their songs live on the set — nearly all movie musicals prerecord them. Luckily, the stars are up to the challenge, and their renditions, complete with occasional misplaced warbles and swallowed notes, are a potent reminder of the film's stage roots.
But Les Mis' songs are also repetitive, and as the third hour approaches, the frequent returns to earlier musical motifs begin to sound more desperate than evocative. A new song has been inserted for Jean Valjean, expressing his growing love for the little girl he has promised to raise. It doesn't add much, and in any case motivations are not Les Mis' strong point. Like other operas, Les Mis doesn't much care about connecting the dots. Wacky coincidences and improbable passions may drive the story forward, but they also conspire to prevent the viewer's full involvement in what's going on. How, for instance, does Jean Valjean progress in less than a decade from being a ragged prison escapee to not only a leading industrialist, but also mayor of a good-sized city? On stage, who cares? Let's sing! But for some reason, a movie demands more explanation.
Hooper, who directed the instant classic The King's Speech, seems to have prepared for this assignment like a kid cramming for a final exam. He cribs from musicals ranging from Oliver! to Cabaret to Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He misses the energy of those earlier films, and he doesn't quite accomplish the immediacy of Les Mis' stage incarnation.
If you loved Les Misérables on stage, you'll not be disappointed by this tuneful stroll down the muck-caked streets of old Paris. But for those who found the play as tedious as a 19-year stint in a French prison camp, be warned: There's no intermission, and someone will have to wake you when the revolution is over.
With its bloody violence, scenes of intense human suffering and depictions of prostitution, Les Misérables is not by any means a family musical. But neither were these other memorable Musicals for Grownups:
One From the Heart (1982) Francis Ford Coppola built an entire Las Vegas street on an indoor set for his revisionist musical — and the resulting flop nearly ruined him. But with its one-of-a-kind look, gutsy performances by Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr and Raul Julia, plus a growling song score by Tom Waits, this is one heartfelt experiment that deserves a second look. It's also just now becoming available on BluRay disc.
Chicago (2002) Gangland Chicago is the backdrop for this raw-edged musical that showed off the unexpected song-and-dance chops of Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. One of the few movie musicals that vastly improved on the stage version.
All That Jazz (1979) Bob Fosse's dark-and-dirty musical about Broadway's underbelly features a whole number built around open heart surgery. As the central character, Roy Scheider is a chain-smoking, drug-addled human time bomb.
Cabaret (1972) The whole movie musical genre was redefined by Bob Fosse's muscular, grungy take on the Kander and Ebb Broadway hit. The stage show's original "book" songs, sung by the characters as part of the show's narrative, are all dumped. Here, all the songs are sung on a stage, as part of the show-within-the-movie, and the result is a harrowing glimpse of a decrepit society defined by its culture.
Pal Joey (1957) Frank Sinatra stars as the guy we always suspected he was: funny, cool, talented … and a complete heel. Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak try to set him straight.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986) A man-eating plant from outer space, a meek little guy (Rick Moranis) who chops up his boss (Vincent Gardenia) as plant food, and a good-hearted girl (Ellen Greene) who's abused by her sadist dentist/boyfriend (Steve Martin). What's not to love?
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