Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables

I've been writing reviews for awhile now on this blog, and yet somehow I've never reviewed a musical.  I've done comedy, horror, romance, drama, Oscarbait, arthouse bullshit, crime, thriller, silent, war, grindhouse, surrealist nightmare, western, exploitation, and whatever the Hell "Cosmopolis" was supposed to be, but never a musical.  So now all I have to do is review a porn and I'll have completed the circle of movies.  Maybe the upcoming adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey" will make that a reality.

I live in the New York area, so I've probably seen more stage musicals than most, and I've seen the original stage version of "Les Misérables".  I've actually done one better and read the original Victor Hugo novel and seen a 1998 dramatic adaptation of that novel starring Liam Neeson.  Out of all the versions of the story that I've seen, I'll have to go with the 1998 film.  I guess I'm only in even remembering that version, but its actually a really great movie with easily the best performances I've seen for any of the characters.  Liam Neeson is a perfect Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush is Javert, a post "Batman and Robin" Uma Thurman is  Fantine, and Claire Daines is Cosette.  Its the most streamlined version of the story too, getting right to the point and hitting the important dramatic marks.  The stage musical is very good, I felt, but I'm not really much of a musical scholar as much as I am a movie guy.  However, its very good because its staged.  Its long, but there's an intermission, there are many great performances, but the staging is diverse and indeed epic in scale.  There are some epic sets, including most impressively an entire barricade for the Paris revolts that appears out of the ceiling.  Perhaps there was a really great movie that could have been made out of the musical, but I'm sorry to say, Tom Hooper's "Les Misérables" was simply not it.

There is a kind of ungainliness to the stage musical that is almost acceptable to that version.  There's definitely a pacing difference between a great stage musical and a great film musical, and "Les Misérables" does not seem to understand this at all.  Tom Hooper adapts the stage musical more or less line for line, including probably every single song, which is a choice that no stage director would ever make.  There's another greater problem in that Tom Hooper runs entirely out of tricks by the first hour, which up until then was extremely well-shot with excellent performances.  But then you start to realize rather terribly that you've already seen the best soliloquies, and the movie starts to run out of steam fast.  There's a tepid oddly joyless version of "Master of the House" which is followed by an hour and a half of thinking "come on, can we get this over already?".  The pretty imagery starts to fall flat, the drama fades away, and for whatever reason, Tom Hooper decides to start randomly throwing dutch angles around, as if screwing with the camera position will somehow breath life back into his movie.  More ruthless editing and the removal of a few joyless reprisal songs could have made for a much better experience.

A lot has been made out of Tom Hooper's decision to make his actors sing on set and use that vocal recording rather than the typical Hollywood tradition of dubbing those vocals over after the fact.  I'm going to start out positive and say this was probably an extremely difficult way of filming, since the vocals couldn't be edited with traditional studio effects.  Also the actors and director are given the incredible task of both giving a convincing musical performance while acting their hearts out.  This leads to a couple of damn good soliloquies, such as Jean Valjean's moment of finding Christ and becoming a good man, where Hugh Jackman is able to throw so much furious emotion into his character that I don't think would be possible if artificially recreated in a studio.  The highlight of the movie (and wisely shown off in the trailers) is Anne Hathaway's* masterful rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream".  Tom Hooper shoves the camera right in her face while she cries her eyes off while hitting insane notes.  There's one last decent moment when Eddie Raymayne sings "Empty Tables, Empty Chairs".

Its actually a stunningly uneven movie, since there are amazing crowd scenes such as the movie's opening and the finale.  But then somehow "Master of the House" is little more than a disaster.  And trust me, Tom Hooper put out every stop to make "Master of the House" work.  He threw Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of Thénardier, which sounds perfect on paper.  Sacha Baron Cohen is known for his wacky comedic characters, and he was used perfectly in last year's "Hugo", as the hardass but bumbling French inspector.  But Cohen seems to flip between a French and Cockney accent, and his singing doesn't really work.  "Master of the House" is easily the catchiest and funniest song in the show, this is something that needs to work in order to break the long hours of melodrama.  And sorry, even when you have a whore fucking Santa Claus, your Thénardier needs to be able to bring the wild energy of a master musical performer.  When he can't do that, like Sacha Baron Cohen sadly did not, then the song fails, and arguably the entire movie fails.

I'm sure real musician folks will be complaining about certain singers who couldn't get to the right octave or whatever, and their complaint is valid, if somewhat superficial.  I thought Joel Schumacher's film version of the "The Phantom of the Opera" was an excellent movie, and Gerard Butler did a great job as the Phantom, even if his singing was mediocre.  Russell Crowe doesn't seem like her really has the range to play Inspector Javert, but he does a passable job, musically.  Worse though is poor Amanda Seyfried as Adult Cosette, but still, its good enough.  Amanda Seyfried's problem in "Les Misérables" is that she actually has the worst role in the show, which was a problem with the musical.

Tom Hooper's faithful adaptation has its own problems, but it also managed to take on the problems from the musical as well, notably being how horribly flat Cosette and Marius' love story is.  The musical is almost self-aware of this issue, thus making Éponine such a large character.  Éponine is in love with Marius, who ignores her for the one-dimensional Cosette, who has so little to do in the musical that she's basically a prop.  Éponine in this movie as in the musical is one of the most interesting characters, and her death is a very tragic moment.  But now the movie has to somehow struggle on in its dull second half without its best character.  Oh, am I really going to be on the edge of my seat for the Cosette and Marius love story, who basically love each other because... they're both young and rich and attractive?  Tom Hooper even gives Marius and Éponine considerably more chemistry than Marius and Cosette, do we have a closet fanboy character shipper at the helm here?

And again, "Les Miz" is not a total failure.  There are some absolutely stunning performances out of a few actors, most shockingly out of a Dickensian Gavroche, who is played by a little boy who can sing with the best of them - and in a Cockney accent that's many times better than Sacha Baron Cohen's.  There are massive expansive sets worthy of note, including for some reason a giant stone elephant.  However the real scope of these sets are only really experienced in the first song and the glorious finale.  Tom Hooper runs out of cinematography tricks by the end of the first hour, so the shots, which are still beautiful, all feel like something we've seen about a million times before.  I'm sure Tom Hooper will get a few Oscar nods, but they really won't be deserved.  This "Les Misérables" is only for the most hardcore of fans of the original musical.

For the rest of you, watch the 1998 version.  Seriously, that movie is massively underrated.

* My diseased brain moves back to Anne Hathaway's run as Oscar Host with her stoned co-star, James Franco a few years ago.  There was one unbelievably awful failed bit, perhaps the biggest failed bit of Oscar history, where Anne Hathaway decided to sing "On My Own", another "Les Miz" song, which was somehow about Hugh Jackman abandoning her... or something.  It made no sense and the only laughs this bit got were confused nervous laughs from the audience.  Anyway, years later, now Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are together as Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables", and both are the best parts of the movie.


  1. I think I saw the 1998 movie in my high school world history class. It was a movie adaptation of Les Miserables that wasn't a musical, so it was probably the one you were talking about. I liked it.

  2. I agree that it was good for the first hour or so, but after Fantine died, the movie seemed to crawl along at a snail's pace and i quickly found myself disinterested. Also Cosette and Marius, "i just saw you and am in love with you," is the worst way to frame any story, not entirely Hooper's fault, but he should have done something to make me care about them, and not wish he would tell Cosette he truly loved Eponine and could never love again