Friday, December 21, 2012

LES MISERABLES Is Good, But Not Quite Master of the House


- Growing up, LES MIS felt everpresent in my life. For whatever reason, the musical was the soundtrack of choice for our family car trips. So a vast majority of drives to Boston, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, or Lake George were accompanied by the melodramatic songs of Jean Valjean, Javert, and Fantine. I've seen the musical once or twice on stage, but the songs are ingrained in my head. And I actually like Les Mis - I've always liked the war-drums-a-beating anthems, the mano-e-mano showdowns between Jean Valjean and Javert, and the darkly humorous depravity of Thenardier and his wife. So while the idea of musical adaptations in general doesn't do much for me, I was sort of excited for Les Mis. It's a cinematic story, and there's a lot that can be done with the location, the characters, and the themes to make them work on the big screen. So does Tom Hooper - he of The King's Speech fame - make it work? In some ways, he does. LES MIS is often visually stunning - adding an epic grandeur to the story that you can't get on stage. In other ways, he falters. He goes for a more actorly approach to the music, letting actors deliver songs in a manner that blends the operatic with the conversational. It works some of the time, but too often it's a mixture that inhibits both the movie's more powerful actors and its more powerful singers.

It's funny - LES MIS seems to have a clear dividing line between the cast members who excel and those who fall flat. Hugh Jackman, for example, does a fine job of anchoring the film as Jean Valjean. He does a great job of making Tom Hooper's stylistic vision work. Meaning, he glides seamlessly from belting out song lyrics in full operatic blast, to "sing-speaking" certain lines during moments that call for more subtlety. He also just emotes like hell. Suffice it to say, the movie would probably fall apart without Jackman's unique versatility as a performer. That said, the other cast member who steals the show is Anne Hathway as Fantine. Sadly, Fantine has limited screen time, but man, Hathaway is phenomenal and makes the most of the time she has. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a highlight of the film. She blends the big notes and soaring drama of the musical version with an air of gritty, tangible pain and suffering. The close-ups on her face during the song - as the tears stream down and her jaw clenches in despair - are just devastating. Hooper makes Fantine's scenes his own, with a real darkness that I never got from the play. While the song "Lovely Ladies" always struck me as comical before, there's now a real grimness and foreboding to it. Some have dubbed me a Hathaway hater for bashing her a bit for The Dark Knight Rises. There, I thought she was good, but miscast. Here though, she is basically perfect, and just knocks it out of the park.

Unfortunately, highlights like Jackman and Hathaway can't completely overshadow the mixed-bag that is the rest of the cast. For me, the biggest misstep was, sadly, Russell Crowe as Javert. It pains me to say it, because Crowe is one of my favorite actors. And you get the sense that, on some level, he actually is perfect for Javert. He looks the part. He's got the necessary gravitas for the role. But man ... his singing, well, it's just plain weak. And trust me, I am not a singing/voice snob in the least. I could care less about pitch or anything like that. But for some reason, Crowe delivers all of his songs with this very measured, very hesitant-sounding singing voice - as if he's concentrating really hard so that he doesn't screw up. But Javert's songs are supposed to be the most powerful and melodramatic of Les Mis. With Crowe's weaksauce singing, all the epicness that should be a part of that classic Javert-Valjean song duel is absent. And it just kills the movie. Okay, maybe "kills" is a strong word, but seriously detracts, no question. Another lowlight for me was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. This one is more about intangibles, but he just didn't seem right for the part to me. Marius feels less like a soldier and leader of men and more like an emo nerd. It doesn't help that the cheesiest part of the musical - the star-crossed romance between Marius and Cosette, is the part that Hooper - for some reason - adds few embellishes to to make it more palatable for film. Everything about Marius feels sort of lame. In fact, to me, Redmayne was easily overshadowed by Aaron Tveit, who plays his friend and the leader of the French student rebellion. Tveit has much more oomph in his voice and helps make a lot of the big soldier songs in the film work as well as they do. I also enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the the villainous Innkeepers, the "master of the house" and his madame. The two brought some great comic relief and quirkiness to the film, and helped liven up the very grim tale. Amanda Seyfried has a great voice, but again, she suffers in that adult Cosette is such a weak character - basically someone who does little except pine for Marius. As for Eponine - Samantha Barks has the vocal chops, but not really the screen presence, to make her memorable. Another highlight though are the film's talented child actors. Isabelle Allen is fantastic as Young Cosette, singing the iconic "Castle on a Cloud" to perfection. Also excellent is Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Always my favorite as a kid, the film's Gavroche is pretty definitive, marching into battle with punk-rock kid-powered gusto.

One problem with Les Mis - the musical, which the film only reinforces - is that it's totally front-loaded. The movie's first scene is probably its best - a grand-scale rendition of "Look Down" that shows, in epic fashion, Jean Valjean and his fellow chain-gang members hauling a giant ocean freighter onto dry land. I literally had chills for about the first fifteen minutes or so of the film - it's great stuff. Big, bold, powerful - this was what I imagined a big-screen telling of Les Mis could be. Hooper depicts the entire Valjean-centric prelude section in sweeping fashion. But halfway through the movie, when it flash-forwards and shifts its focus from Valjean to Marius, it suddenly becomes a much more stuffy affair. We go from massive chain gangs to Marius singing on and on about "a heart full of love," despite the fact that he's glimpsed Cosette in the market for all of 10 seconds. Hooper never tops that opening number. But another weird thing is that that opening is where he is most visually adventurous. As the film progresses, it starts feeling less cinematic and more like a stage show on film. I'm not sure why that is. But the other issue is inherent in the musical - it just loses a lot of steam two-thirds through, and never recovers. All of the good songs are, for the most part, in the movie's first half. After that, there are a lot of retreads. The tempo slows considerably. And by the time the movie reaches its conclusion - it feels like it's gotten to that point after a bit of a slog. The passage of time in the movie also feels off. Again, I found it strange that in the beginning of the film we get a very clear jump of several years. But later in the film, for example, Jean Valjean goes from spry, still-badass middle age to old, frail and dying within the span of a day or so. Um ... what? This is emblematic about what struck me as really strange about this film. In the first act, Tom Hooper takes some really cool visual and storytelling liberties. But later, he begins to stick very closely to the musical in ways that simply don't translate well to the screen. Like with Valjean's aging - couldn't that have been handled in a more organic and dramatic manner? Or how about Marius and Cozette - couldn't their romance have been a little more fleshed-out, maybe a little more modernized, so that it's not so sudden and, in turn, cheesetastic? It told me that Hooper seemed unsure about his vision for the film - was this to be a straight-up adaptation with a visual flourish here and there? Or was this to be a re-imagining - at least to some extent? This lack of consistency gives the movie an all-over-the-place feel. Parts of it are slavishly faithful to the musical, others (like the opening) show us what might have been had the movie really taken some chances. By the same token, the movie never really adapts to the limitations of, say, a Russell Crowe. If you're going to keep Javert's pulse-pounding musical numbers completely intact, then why not get someone who can nail them?

Despite these faults, the movie's best actors, and its best moments, make it worthwhile for fans and non-fans of the musical alike. There is much to like here, and when LES MIS is good ... it's *really* good. That's what makes the movie frustrating on some level - they really knock it out of the park on certain songs and certain scenes. If they kept up that level of quality and power throughout the whole film, it could have been one hell of a movie. As it is, LES MIS is good but not great - a movie with soaring highs and disappointing lows. Those highs really are something special, and through them the movie reminds us of the power of Les Mis' best songs and biggest themes. But as an adaptation, it's not quite definitive.

My Grade: B

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