starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen
screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, based on Boublil & Schönberg's stage play and the novel by Victor Hugo
directed by Tom Hooper
by Walter Chaw The title refers to the audience; imagine director Tom Hooper as James Cagney in The Public Enemy, and you're Mae Clarke getting the grapefruit shoved in your face. Yes, Hooper's glacial, note-for-note screen adaptation of Schönberg & Boublil's smash musical Les Misérables is 157 minutes of extreme close-up/wide-angle theatre threatening, at every moment, to slide completely off the screen, given the accidental-auteur's propensity to ignore half the frame. It's ugly in the way that only films driven by fanatical vision, unfettered by checks, and galvanized by awards and money can be ugly--so much time is spent horning in up Hugh Jackman's nose that I spent the first day or so of it thinking I was watching a musical about spelunking. It's a picture that doesn't respect your personal space: I've never more wanted to mace a movie than this, the umpteenth adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic but the first of the Broadway phenomenon that pretty much defined the best way to get into a high-school girl's good graces in the 1980s. After this ordeal, I'd offer that still the best way this musical's ever appeared on film was its iconic poster making a cameo on Patrick Bateman's bathroom wall in American Psycho.
This Les Misérables appears with not a hint of self-awareness and betrays not for a moment that it understands itself as an artifact, nor does it care much that what it's attempting to do in translating a stage musical to film requires something like a plan--a commensurate vision to ease the transition. For the uninitiated, Les Misérables follows the exploits of poor Jean Valjean (Jackman), who goes on the run from evil Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) upon violating parole. (He was imprisoned for the theft of a loaf of bread to feed someone.) Jean makes good, becomes a factory owner or mayor or somesuch, and adopts Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of dead hooker Fantine (Anne Hathaway). The French Revolution June Rebellion of 1832 happens, an event the film has a confused opinion about (it's great and it's terrible before they settle on "it's romantic!"), as Cosette falls for dashing revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
Hugo's novel (home to the longest sentence in the world, or so I once read) deals with large questions; Hooper's flick deals with what to do with itself once Hathaway vanishes after absolutely killing her big number ("I Dreamed a Dream," made immortal in modern memory by Susan Boyle's public seduction of Simon Cowell with it) around thirty minutes in. It's like when Janet Leigh disappears from Psycho...or it would be if Leigh were the best thing in Psycho--and had Psycho been directed by an absolute hack, which leads to a conversation, of course, about how Tom Hooper has one more Oscar for directing than Hitch does, but that's perhaps one of those rabbit holes one should just leave alone. The year he won, Hooper, incidentally, beat Darren Aronofsky, the Coen Brothers, and David Fincher. Okay, now I'm done.
Much has been made of how all the actors sang their numbers (more than fifty of them; seemed like more) live on camera into digitally-erased microphones, the better to allow the cast to craft screen performances, I suppose. The result, though, is that it's all too clear that Crowe can't sing and certainly can't act at the same time he's failing to sing well, leading to long, long, long, slow, slow, slow interludes where everyone out here feels awfully embarrassed for everyone up there. One could say the lone miracle that Les Misérables performs is making anyone feel sorry for Crowe, ever. But the bigger problem is that Hathaway is the only one who transcends Hooper's myopic hemiagnosia--the only one who makes real emotion of the melodrama of cramped source material that has the audacity to not only introduce a new generation of characters post intermission, but also ask us to invest in a love triangle between three pretty little ciphers chirping their sorta-pretty little songs. The danger of making everything overwrought, after all, is that nobody has that kind of stamina; how Hooper makes Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (typecast now as Mrs. Lovett) as avaricious foster parasites this flat and uninteresting is, okay, the film's other miracle. Les Misérables is doomed to polarize the half that loved it before they saw it and the half dragged there that spent the last few hours of it surreptitiously checking the time. Just like the good old days.