By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review: Les Misérables
From the opening shot of the giant fake CG boat and the oil paining waves moving into the rows of men pulling on a rope while having enormous buckets of water thrown in their faces as Russell Crowe looks down on them in a jaunty hat and head-to-toe felt, Les Misérables stinks of faux sincerity.
Why are they pulling the rope? Is the boat that we assume is attached to it moving?
And then, as Crowe’s Javert confronts Jackman’s Jean Valjean for the first time (on screen), Crowe demands that Jackman “retrieve the flag,” which is somehow turned into a Herculean effort. You see, there is a complementary moment later in the film and apparently, Valjean is incredibly strong… which only comes up three times in the film.
The hand-held camera… the Batman angles… and suddenly Jackman is walking at the top of a mountain. Is that near the water?
I am not a moron. I can deal with building the factual reality in my head when the style of the film decides against being literal. But that is what is so much the failure of Les Misérables… it wants it both ways. It wants to be profoundly intimate, suffering in extreme close-up, the singing-on-the-set choice (the endless hype about which has turned it from “choice” to “stunt), and shooting almost completely in singles and tight doubles. Edit. Edit. Edit.
But the material is HUGE and EPIC and MELODRAMATIC.
So the effect of director Tom Hooper’s is like looking at Mount Everest through the wrong side of the binoculars.
I like musicals. Some people think me a sucker for them. I don’t think my actual history confirms that argument. I have shredded a lot more movie musicals in the last 15 years than I have embraced.
In the theater, musicals are profoundly unreal. And that is a part of the experience. Converting a musical – any musical – to film requires an awareness that film is a literal medium. Yes, it’s a bunch of cut up false realities… but the literalism of film is demanding in a different way, which also explains why the greatest stage actors don’t always find success on the big screen.
It’s also why Anne Hathaway is getting the raves she is for Les Mis. We see deep into the eyes of a person we like and as she suffers and then, as she sings about it…. we are moved. This movie star brings her own context. And in that moment, it doesn’t matter that we never see her with her child, that the argument that she should be fired because she has a child and that other women hate her for it makes no sense, or that she goes from innocent to whore and drug addict in a matter of musical minutes.
But she isn’t there to pay the consequences of the undetailed theatricality of it all. Poor Hugh Jackman, who is the most musical-theatrically talented of the group of lead actors, has to carry the exposition while singing and being slathered with dirt… and he pays the price for it by not seeming to give as wonderful a performance as Ms Hathaway. It’s not his performance. It’s the frickin’ movie.
And Russell Crowe is getting the worst of it. He is a rock singer and sings like a rock singer… and I’m fine with that. If that is the director’s choice, you can blame the actor. He is game. And he tries. But Javert is so endlessly myopic and inflexible – and not in an interesting way – that there is nowhere to go.
Love or hate Limbaugh or Hannity, but you can’t really think that them or any of their right wing extremist colleagues would commit suicide if they ever thought for a moment that they might agree with President Obama on a moral level. Seriously! I didn’t expect Javert to suddenly work side-by-side with Valjean to make the world a better place, but remember, Valjean’s crime was stealing a loaf of bread. You leap to your death because you think, for a moment, that rigidity to the point of bitter cruelty may not be The Way? It works in a novel, sometimes, but only because there are so many layers of interesting things going on with the character over hundreds of pages. Oy.
Also suffering from Hooper’s choices are (the overcast) Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play so broadly against the black/brown backdrop of relentless excrement and dirt that they are in a different movie. HBC is closer to reality, but Cohen seems to be on a one-man crusade to entertain in a universe where there is no excuse made for why he and his wife are allowed to be such overt criminals.
I need context. Please! I can rationalize if I have to… but it’s not a good kind of rationalization in this case. This is not giving the film its premise. I am doing that. People sing everything. Got it. I won’t even make fun of the song “Who Am I?,” the correct answer to which, sung in a dark anguished space by a man with a false identity, must be, “I’m Batman.”
Often, the music is banal as shit, but okay… I’ll work with you on that. But why have the epic battles of civil unrest in France been reduced to the lives of 10 people and why don’t I at least know what the hell is happening in their lives in a way that allows me to anticipate, worry, and suffer with them?
The cast really works its ass off here. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are side story refugees from Sweeney Todd’s side story… which I can live with. Both are very good. Samantha Barks kills “On My Own,” which is one of only two times when Hooper seems to have put aside the hyper juice – between wacky shots, singles, Dutch angles, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut – and let the song play with an intensely personal performance.
The other time, it’s Anne Hathaway winning her first Oscar. But even there… and in so many cases… the vanity/marketing play of singing on set leads to hyper-melodramatic mush with ugly crying and not-very-good singing and no remote connection to anything real.
And that again is at the heart of what is wrong with this movie. It’s the idea. It’s a daring idea. I bless Mr. Hooper for being brave. But for all the great work below-the-line and even above-the-line… it has lost all the scale that seems to have made the theatrical experience (which I never had, for the record) work so well for audiences while gaining nothing but the permanence of film.
I am amazed to be arguing for what worked about Mamma Mia!, which does not work in this film. They got it. Meryl Streep is 60something, Pierce Brosnan can’t sing (nor Saarsgard and barely Firth), the kids are a decade too young for these parents, they shot on the islands, but much of it still looks like it was shot in Culver City with backdrops… etc, ec, etc. But they got the energy that made the show a smash on stage and then a smash as a movie. It’s a goof. Phyllida Lloyd said as much to me last year. She didn’t want it to be slick or perfect. She wanted it to look like it had been shot by a home video camera. Because the spirit was dress up and sing and dance. If they had barns in Greece, it would have been in a barn. And it was 100 times more heartfelt, in its final result, than Les Misérables.
There are many beautiful and beautifully done things in this film. But it’s not hard to get a big laugh with a fraulein mounted on Santa. It’s a stunt, not storytelling. And there, amongst the extreme close-ups are snippets and moments from the staged version, not motivated, but somehow required.
I feel like saying I hate this movie. I really don’t. I was just bored out of my mind by its lack of anything real. Does it make people cry? Yes. I think I may have cried a bit because I have a young child and cruelty to children in movies is something I have personally become more sensitive to… but so what?
They forgot to fix the book and really turn this into a movie. Great taste was shown in hiring terrific actors and there is a lot of style. But even the French need something more than butter and w(h)ine to proclaim a dish great.