Les Miserables (2012)

It’s tempting to write something glib like, “If you love movie musicals, you’ll really love Les Miserables,” but I can’t. “Les Mis,” as the film is glibly referenced, puts all oars in the water as it bans the spoken word in favor of lyrics and melodies. Everything is sung – and for good reason. This is a film that dares to drop the lip synching and apologies.

If, as director Tom Hooper sees it, you’re willing to suspend judgment on whether it’s “real” for characters to just break into song (let alone amidst a full orchestra from nowhere), what’s the harm in taking the next step and presenting the entire story melodically?

It’s a grand idea, one designed to put the passion back into the performances by refusing to see the “musical numbers” as just musical numbers. Once the song and dance is reduced to “song and dance,” acting is subordinated to these musical mechanics. And he’s got a point. Relatively few actors make great singers and even fewer singers make great actors. It does seem as if artists find their medium and pour their souls into it.

Director Tom Hooper was thus determined to force the actors to see their musical “lines” as opportunities for actual acting. Watching Hollywood superstars, like Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, pour their souls into these lines is well worth the price of admission.

On the other hand, one person’s purity is another person’s poison. If the “sing everything” approach reflects a refreshing courage and unapologetic boldness, it might also be the musical version of going “full retard.” If soaring musical interludes are the icing on the cake, what are we to make of a plate full of icing? Where the hell’s the cake?

Watching, as all three of this film’s superstars were forced to hum a line for every thought or reply, I couldn’t help but remember a scene from Elf, where Will Ferrell is mistaken for a guy hired to deliver a singing telegram. When pressed to sing his message, he hilariously goes into a chorus of “I’m here with my dad and we never met. And he wants me to sing him a song. And I was adopted but you didn’t know I was born, so I’m here now. I found you, Daddy. And guess what? I love you, I love you, I love you.”

When everything, in this opera-in-English, is the stuff of song, it would help for those songs to be spectacular and not feel like they were made up on the spot, as the actors channel the ghost of Will Ferrell. Say what you will about Madonna, but Evita is just choc with great numbers. Even Disney musicals, aimed at nine year olds, can pop off some pretty catchy tunes. With Les Miserables, I can count at least three times when the score hit paydirt, not the least of which was Hathaway’s breathtaking performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” (again, worth the price of admission, even if the visuals and context are enough to make you toss your popcorn).

But even paring down to 20 songs from the Broadway musical’s original 33, it’s hard to come up with more than a handful of tunes that stand out as memorable, or even hummable on the way home. There’s a lot here that feels like filler, albeit melodic filler. If you really love musicals, this would have to be cinematic catnip. Otherwise, it’s a long 158 minutes. Anne Hathaway’s singing is spectacular, but most of the singing involves the cat-and-mouse rivalry between Jackman and Crowe. And while Jackman acquits himself amazingly well, Russell’s warbling is somewhere between okay and chuckle-worthy.

For the five people in North America who are not acquainted with the Victor Hugo classic, this is the story of Jean Valjean (Jackman), an ex-convict who is branded with his past until he jumps parole and assumes a false identity. The beneficiary of unexpected grace, Valjean comes into enough money to reinvent himself as a French industrialist with a heart, a turn of events that produces a real change in our hero.

Unfortunately, his nemesis, Inspector Javert (Crowe) has no place in his heart for grace or compassion. A zealous enforcer of the law, Javert pursues Valjean the moment he sees through the latter’s disguise. Fantine (Hathaway) is the woman between them, a woman wronged – in one way or another – by both of them in a process that forces her into the streets.

Amidst all the singing, I found myself nostalgic for the 1998 production starring Lliam Neeson, whose Northern Irish stoicism strikes me as a more believable rendition of a man whose contempt for the stupid abuses of power would make him a likelier target of petty enforcers. I also miss the prickly pushiness of Geoffrey Rush, whose Javert wasn’t just cynical, in the way cops are after taking out society’s trash, but infused with the gleeful sadism of the zealot and true believer. (At least neither film presents Valjean as Girard Depardieu playing “the eggman,” goo goo g’joob.)

Lovers of the musical bewailed the 1998 film’s non-musical approach but this film’s 158 minutes of singing are the very definition of overkill. Even if you accept the director’s premise that singing can be an alternate way to deliver the dialogue and exposition of a conventional film, what story – apart from a Shakespearean play on PBS – would inflict upon its viewers 158 minutes of nonstop dialogue?

Depending on your tolerance, Les Miserables is either a tour de force or a trainwreck, though there’s no reason it can’t be both. I saw the film on opening day but I suspect that the weeks since then have turned many a couples’ date night into a tale of two viewings, with one person entranced while the other was counting the minutes. For guys who take their sweetheart to “chick flicks” in hopes of having some of that happiness work in their favor, all I can say is this: Buy the large popcorn and get yourself a large drink and candy. These are going to be your friends for the next two-and-a-half hours.

– Bill Kilpatrick

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Universal Pictures released Les Miserables on December 25, 2012. Tom Hooper directed the film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway.

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