Wed 19 Dec 2012
Ten years ago, “Chicago” was brought from Broadway to the big screen and it was hailed as the return of the movie musical. It would go on to win multiple Oscars and was a financial success thanks to the inclusion of big name actors who could draw in middle America and carry a tune (for the most part). Those (like myself) who didn’t think it was nearly as good as the considerable hype would rather have seen the leads go to people with real singing chops who could also act. But what does art matter when you can make money?
Since then, attempts to recreate that lightning in a bottle haven’t quite panned out. “Dreamgirls” came closest to doing so but “Norbit” made sure to spoil Eddie Murphy’s night. “Mamma Mia!” found an audience but few critics took it too seriously. Then there’s “Hairspray”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “The Producers”, “Rent“, “Rock of Ages“, and “Sweeney Todd”; some of which made their money back but again, few considered any of them serious “Best of the Year” contenders.
Now, as 2012 draws to a close, Hollywood is hoping the combination of recent Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper and another A-list cast will turn “Les Misérables” into the financial and critical success “Chicago” had been a decade ago. For those not familiar with this musical, it spans decades as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) breaks parole, takes a young girl named Cosette into his protection, and remains on the run the whole time from Javert (Russell Crowe); all as the French Revolution is drawing near.
On the plus side, the production design and costuming is handled brilliantly. Audiences are transported back to France in the 1800s but it also still feels a little bit like watching a stage musical – in a good way. The blending of CGI with actual sets is done well and the overall spectacle the musical deserves comes through on-screen.
The supporting cast is made up of some excellent actors who came up through the musical theater scene. In particular, Samantha Barks as Éponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras stand out and steal their scenes. Barks’ version of “On My Own” is the standout performance of the movie and every time Tveit is given a chance to have his voice stand out, he makes the higher paid actors look a little silly. Isabelle Allen as the younger version of Cosette also acquits herself quite nicely (we’ll get to Seyfried’s take on the adult version in a second).
While the 160-minute runtime is necessary to retain the content of the musical, it’s a lot to ask of audiences to sit through. Thankfully one of the other elements to work well is the comic relief. This comes via Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the husband and wife team of thieves initially charged with Cosette’s care (though really the relationship was more like Cinderella and her stepmother). Their chemistry and humor help lighten the otherwise dreary mood.
The most artistically interesting idea put into action for the movie was having all of the singing recorded live on-set, rather than using pre-recorded music and lip synching. This allowed the actors to change the emotion of the song to best fit the way they were adapting to the scene. Hopefully this will be utilized in other musicals put to film.
And then … wait … there’s got to be something else that worked. Umm … Well … Anne Hathaway as Fantine was okay. Her voice is nice to listen to and she came closest among the leads to balancing the singing with the acting. However, Hooper’s insistence on maintaining a tight close-up during “I Dreamed a Dream” was frustrating (as were many of his choices in framing the actors). Jackman wasn’t the problem either, though it’s hard not to make Wolverine jokes now and then when he gets angry.
No, the real problems come from Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and Eddie Redmayne. Crowe has the right look for a villain but his vocals were so nasally delivered that he would have fit far better in “Rock of Ages” than this. The bad guy should have a real deep and menacing tone to complement his actions; with a voice like his it’s hard to find the character all that imposing.
Redmayne may have a lot of experience in live theater but his voice often ends up sounding like a bad imitation of Kermit the Frog and whenever he’s set up against the likes of Tveit, the glaring difference in clarity and strength only makes it worse.
Still, and it really, really pains me to say this … the very worst part of the movie is Amanda Seyfried. She did fine in “Mamma Mia!” and on paper seemed like a good choice for Cosette. However, apparently some people benefit more from post-production than others and it’s hard to be nice about how bad her voice is live. She rarely stops assaulting the audience with a high pitched trill that can best be described as the noise a animated Disney princess makes when she’s been magically transformed into a warbling bird. It’s excruciating to listen to and makes pretty much every scene Seyfried is in a lesson in aural pain.
With all that said, there one easy test to determine if you should make “Les Misérables” your Christmas movie of choice. Did you like “Chicago”? If so, you’ll probably like this. It copies their formula of preferring well-known actors to well-trained singers even though the film should be all about the songs. All those who prefer their musicals to be first and foremost about the music, take the cash you saved from missing this towards a ticket to a live stage performance. Or if you’re really watching your wallet, you can wait for one of those special movie events that broadcast live theater. You’ll spend the same amount of money but get a far more satisfying experience.