Merry Christmas, "Les Miz" lovers – I'm about to hate all over your musical.
All right, calm down. I don't hate the musical itself, per se. What I hate is its utterly superfluous big screen adaptation, which I'm about 90 percent sure is getting rave reviews only because people can't differentiate between "great musical" and "great musical lazily slapped onto film for mass consumption."
"Les Miserables," to the musical-inclined, is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a 19th-century French parole jumper who vows to care for young Cosette (Isabelle Allen/ Amanda Seyfried) after the death of her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway). "Les Miserables," to the musical-less-than-inclined, is that new movie with Hathaway ugly-crying into the camera as she belts out that Susan Boyle song.
Those in the latter camp will be sorely disappointed when Hathaway bites it within minutes of first appearing on screen, and that's the fault of a dirty marketing trick to get people into seats with her clout behind the trailers. It's a minor offense, though, compared to the rest of the more legitimate shortcomings that litter this two-and-a-half-hour trudge.
For all of the languid pace it takes up in later acts, "Les Miz" rushes through its exposition like the opening credits were on fire. It drops key points of the introduction in moments, scattered across characters in a muddled mess of sing-talking, which is itself hard to follow right from the beginning. The exchanges may as well have been in French, especially considering Valjean and Javert (Russell Crowe)'s penchants for referring to themselves in the third person.
It wasn't the completely musical dialogue that turned me off, though, but the constant soliloquizing. Having the characters talk to themselves to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to the audience might work on a Broadway stage, but in a movie – where "showing" takes precedent to "telling" – the device just comes off as lazy. After being translated from novel to stage so successfully, I would think the people behind the film version would have invested time and effort into crafting a screenplay that would embrace the medium with a little more grace. Instead, it comes off as a stubborn, bloated diva.
Another cause for distraction is director Tom Hooper's pervasive visual style. The too-close camerawork, coupled with offset shots later on, take the audience completely out of the moment. Extreme closeups of Jackman's face during his early spiritual conflict at the church are uncomfortably invasive, and the off-center framing of Hathaway during the famous "I Dreamed a Dream" was downright "Blair Witch"-y. Hooper's decision to situate her face in the bottom right corner of the screen with a stark black background filling the rest of the frame drew harsh attention to every camera shake and readjustment.
I felt a little nauseous, and that made me feel worse, since there were plenty of other things more deserving of the feeling in this otherwise blasé film. The music – not the singing, but the accompaniment – was inconsistently balanced with the vocals and made the interactions and solos that much harder to follow. The actual musical numbers were slightly more consistent, but the background music during conversations only served as complicating noise.
Of course, I can't discuss inconsistencies without mentioning Crowe's performance as the adamant poster boy for blind obedience, Javert. He wows, frankly, in the sing-songy conversations because he's nowhere near the short list of prospective musical talent, but he completely falters in bigger numbers. He also didn't bring a convincing amount of tenacity to his role as Valjean's dogged pursuer. He came off as whiny instead of conflicted, and he didn't have enough of a character arc to make his screen time worthwhile.
Another installment to the "static character" list is the comic relief pair of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers. They're typecast to a tee as the deadbeat innkeepers who hold initial custody of Cosette, but (and it pains me to say it) they were almost tedious in such expected roles. Even though they did a fine job of carrying their responsibilities in the ensemble, their performances felt like phone-ins if only because they've gone there so many times before.
That, in essence, is the problem with all of the assorted downtrodden souls that make their way through "Les Miz." I understand these are struggling people in the depths of trying times and all manner of despairs, but I just didn't care about a single one of them. They were, across the board, so uniformly ennui-laden that there was nothing interesting to cling to. The ensemble shots, larger musical numbers and visuals were the only things that embraced something other than the washed-out gray mood and sea of warbling solos. But, they were so infrequent that they merely served to rouse me from my apathetic coma.
I can't help but think that some restructuring could have saved "Les Miserables": film edition. Some editing, dialogue adjustment or more conventional camera choices could have rescued it from its self-inflicted misery. Toward the end I was just hoping they'd be put out of it, but not even the act of dying was spared laborious screen time – the only thing more insistent than the self-indulgent death scenes was my brain screaming, "Just shut up and do it already!"
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