My suspicion is that if you are a fan of the stage show of Les Miserables, you’re probably going to be keener on Tom Hooper’s film version than I am. Quite honestly, I didn’t like it — I didn’t like it a lot. I think a good bit of the problem stems from the source material. It doesn’t work for me or on me. I cannot — try as I may — remember a note of the music. It’s all one undistinguished and indistinguishable mass. I even saw the movie twice to see if that helped matters on that or with any other score. It didn’t. I was more disappointed than annoyed because I wanted to like this. After all, by and large, I like musicals and I like Tom Hooper (particularly his The Damned United and The King’s Speech). Normally, I like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. By rights, I really ought to like this movie. Unfortunately, I found it humorless (yes, I know it’s called Les Miserables, but did it have to include the audience?), unaffecting and absolutely interminable. It was like the dramatic equivalent of Mamma Mia! (with less catchy songs), but where that film kept screaming at me to have a good time, this one wanted to bludgeon me with how serious and important it was — to the point that I laughed at several inappropriate points. (When one character who died early on popped up about 20 reels later, I was much amused, which wasn’t the idea.)
While I have nothing against operatic filmmaking, Hooper has pitched the whole film in what might be called bombastic overkill. It starts on an absurdly oversized note — with Jackman’s Jean Valjean and a bunch of other convicts bellowing while pulling a ship into its berth — and stays there. It’s not enough that there’s plenty of manpower here to build the pyramids. Oh, my, no—computerized swooping cameras, spraying water and CGI trickery are all working overtime to sell this as spectacle. I suppose it works on some level, but it all seems like so much effort to get to any real point. It’s big for the sake of being big, but whether it’s impressive or simply oppressive in its sheer lumbering, elephantine plodding is another matter. However, if you are impressed by this, you’ll likely feel the same about the rest of it — because it’s not unlike the rest of its 157 minutes.
Much has been made — especially by the director — of the film’s use of live recording, which is hardly the big breakthrough it’s been painted to be. Musicals are normally recorded first and then acted out to a playback. There’s a reason for this: It works. The earliest musicals were done live, but that was primarily a technical consideration, not an aesthetic one. There are exceptions. Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950) used live recording, but the songs and stagings were off-the-cuff and simple. One of the numbers in Alan Parker’s Evita (1996) was recorded live. Most famously, Peter Bogdanovich’s career-crippling At Long Last Love (1975) used the technique. The idea in Hooper’s case was to preserve the immediacy of the performances. Does it? Perhaps, but whether it’s a good thing is a separate consideration. It tends to prompt the director to crowd his camera in on the hard-working performer — and their pitched-to-the-back-row efforts are often distractingly palpable. Big close-ups of Jackman with the veins bulging out of his head like he’s courting an aneurysm feel less like emoting and more like the actor straining to hit those notes. Anne Hathaway fares better, but Russell Crowe merely seems uncomfortable.
It’s all coated in high-gloss romanticized poverty, jittery hand-held camerawork and admittedly occasionally striking images (usually at the beginning or ending of a scene). How you’ll respond to the basic story of Jean Valjean being hounded (somewhat preposterously) by Inspector Javert (Crowe) — with infusions of subplots and a veneer of French history — probably goes back to Victor Hugo’s book, or at least the stage show. It requires considerable suspension of disbelief — from the mystifying presence of Cockney accents for the lower classes to the convenience of Javert’s appearances — that I couldn’t muster. And it’s all so very earnest and important. (Thank goodness, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter enliven things with good natured villainy.) You may get more out of it than I did — you could hardly get less — but if I want dramatized French history tarted up with songs, I’ll take Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967). Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Playing at Carmike 10