Sunday, December 30, 2012

800 Words: The Survival of Les Miserables - Part 2

I have now seen the new Les Mis movie, and can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that with the exception of two scenes, this is the worst movie imaginable that could have been made from this source material. It is not simply bad, or even a disaster, it is perhaps a once-in-a-generation cinematic apocalypse of poor judgment and bad taste.

There is one simple reason why this movie so bad. And that is because this movie insists on trying to make Les Mis into something good. I love the musical version of Les Miserables. I can’t help it, I memorized it when I was six years old and it was the first inkling to this precociously insufferable music lover that opera could exist in English and even in a non-classical idiom. At this point in my life, I can still sing virtually every song in the show from memory. But even in its best performances, Les Miserables has long since become a guilty pleasure for me. Les Mis is a decent musical whose runaway success is entirely disproportionate to artistic worth. The only thing about Les Mis which speaks to any kind of creative genius is the marketing which made it the most profitable musical of all time. And yet here is a movie that insists to us that the material behind this financial deluge is strong enough to support one final attempt to transform a solid musical into a work of immortal art.

The infinite ambitions of this movie are scrawled around every shot that gives you a good view of a singer’s larynx and every new scrap of plodding material written specifically for this movie. The stage show content has been edited hundreds of times for the movie, and as you see them, you marvel at how much sense these edits make. In all fairness, the musical direly needs editing. Not only does the musical sprawl, but at many points it’s downright incoherent. There are literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of edits, from the tenses of verbs to whole new songs and scenes. Some of these edits exist because they make more sense for a movie, some of them exist simply to correct the long plot muddle in the play. Just to take the most obvious example, in the play, we have no idea why Javert is still pursuing Valjean. To the best of my memory having seen four live productions in two different languages, two TV versions, and listened two cast albums, there isn’t a single line that refers to exactly how Jean Valjean broke his parole. So basically, we’re expected to believe that Javert harasses Valjean because he’s an a**hole who has some sort of Kafkaesque explanation for the fact that Valjean committed another crime even if he didn't. The movie solves this in one simple stroke – the first scene contains a line (from the novel) about how Valjean must carry the yellow ticket to any potential employer and landlord which says he’s an extremely dangerous man until the end of his life and has to report to a parole board thirty days after his release. The yellow ticket is in the stage play, but the contents of the yellow ticket are never revealed to us. At the end of the song (really just an ultradramatic monologue) “What have I done”, Valjean tears up the ticket – something he's too busy singing to do in the stage musical - thereby refusing to acknowledge his lifelong parole sentence. And thus twenty-five years of muddle was cleared up in two simple, ingenious edits. I could point out a dozen other edits that are similarly ingenious which make a more coherent plot. And yet nobody seemed to mind the fact that Les Mis was a muddle in the first place.

The problem is that the lyrics in these new edits are every bit as uninspired, and sometimes moreso, than what came before them. The stage show’s been honed for twenty five years, and even in the awful 25th anniversary concert (as seen every hour of every day on PBS for the last two years), it was still incoherent, but it nevertheless took you directly from one over-the-top flight of fancy to the next. This show is ridiculous, it knows it’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t care. Neither should you. But in trying to tie everything together for a coherent narrative, in hewing closer to the Hugo novel than the stage show ever dared, it loses the headlong momentum which made you forget for an hour at a time that the show was ridiculous. The great bulk of the new material is simply dull at the most fundamental level. Les Mis is grand opera, and every bit as ridiculous and stupid as the 19th century Auber and Meyerbeer operas which inspired it.

And then there are those close-ups.  I completely understand why Tom Hooper elected to use close-ups, as a movie version requires the kind of intimacy which the grand over-the-topness of theater does not provide. But why did he keep all the singers in extreme closeup when it was time to let their voices soar. The best directorial choice in the entire movie, coming in an otherwise risible scene, was to have Russell Crowe sing the famous belting aria “Stars” as he stares at Notre Dame Cathedral – no doubt to distract from the fact that Crowe can’t sing it. And that’s the moment when I realized… where is the landscape in this movie? The main character of Les Miserables is not Jean Valjean, the main character is France. And the moment the movie arrives in Paris, it completely loses whatever little interest it had in the surrounding landscapes and almost every scene takes place in an enclosed set. That may have been a choice made for budgetary reasons, but it ruined any chance of redeeming the movie in its second half. Rather than give us the epic view of French life which a movie of Les Mis desperately needs, it ruined the movie version’s most fundamental asset by focusing every song in the sort of extreme close-up that even Wayne and Garth knew was a terrible idea. Instead of showing real scenes of French peasant life, it opts this once to preserve the integrity of the stage show in the choice where it’s most crucial that it shouldn’t. Rather than showing the poor of France in all their misery, it shows the poor in the kind of highly stylized dance moves that alleviates us from the burden of taking their miserableness seriously. When it comes time for the prostitution scene, the prostitutes look like dancing zombies from A Chorus Line. 

And then there are all those unconvincing, sometimes absolutely hilarious set-pieces. The chain gang moving the galley ship (as we read in the novel) which looks like a pleasant day at the beach, the spontaneously singing and dancing beggars who seem like they should be get a scholarship to go to the high school from FAME, the aforementioned zombie hookers and the delivery of I Dreamed a Dream after having sex in her prostitution bed, the fake sword fight in the confrontation scene, the 1960’s style crowding of the cops by the revolutionaries, the barricade so small that it reminded me of This Is Spinal Tap’s ten-inch Stonehenge, Marius’s resolve to immediately leave his own wedding after finding out where Valjean is without even a word of explanation to his grandfather, or poor Colm Wilkinson playing the Bishop of Digne and forced to wear a 1000-watt grin as he welcomes Jean Valjean to heaven, and my personal favorite,…the endless river of shit in the Parisian sewers. Not even Paris can manufacture the smell which that much feces must give off. 

But the ultimate nadir of this movie was Hooper’s choice to have the singers record live in real-time. Tom Hooper makes costume dramas, and like most costume drama directors, he is charitably known as an “actor’s director.” But in this case as in very few others, the moniker seems to be deserved. The King’s Speech is an overrated movie, but Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were both fantastic. The John Adams miniseries sprawled at times, but it had uniformly wonderful performances from every lead actor (Paul Giammati, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, and John Dossett). But most amazingly, he coached Helen Mirren through what might have been the performance of her career. The (deserved) hype about The Queen overshadowed the fact that she played Elizabeth I in an HBO miniseries that has to stand as one of the very greatest TV movies ever made.  

Clearly, Tom Hooper loves actors and they love him. But his trust of actors proved to be the movie’s ultimate downfall. To make the movie more intimate and conversational, the singers recorded live in real-time, accompanied by a live piano. Singers could take their time on every line they wished, they could make any interpretive choice to mold every scene precisely as they felt it. As a G-list conductor who works with singers every week, I feel confident in saying that any competent musical director of a show will tell you the same thing – NEVER GIVE SINGERS A RUBBER STAMP! Conductors should be held accountable for their whims as well, but the nexus of narcissism for which this choice allowed boggles the brain. The sheer coddling it must take to indulge every egotistical interpretive choice in this cast is stunning. Tom Hooper obviously spent months patiently forming an interpretation of this show in which he corrected all the continuity errors, found ways to stage scenes which made far more sense than they ever did on the stage, and yet when it came time for big numbers, he indulged the singers to go as far into ham territory as they wished. And nearly every one of them took him up on his offer. Sometimes the actors inserted their own lines of spoken dialogue into songs that must have been improvised on the spot, and none more hilarious than the one towards the end in which Jean Valjean finally confesses his past to Cosette, to which the always gorgeous but not always the most talented actress Amanda Seyfried utters a superbly awkward and casually plot-changing “I knew.” Maybe it wasn’t her idea, but whoever came up with it will have probably earned a place in movie history’s hall of shame.

Anne Hathaway recently did a skit on Saturday Night Live which spoofed Homeland, in which she made fun of Claire Danes for giving precisely the sort of over-the-top hammy performance she gave here – only Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is far more over-the-top than Claire Danes has ever been in Homeland’s most far-fetched scenes – with as many painfully awkward grimaces and diva pauses as there are syllables in the words of her role. Of all the awful performances in this movie, Anne Hathaway gave the worst, and to think that she’s being commended as the joy of the film is still more bizarre than her facial contortions. Hugh Jackman clearly had no direction as Jean Valjean, because his vocal performance stays on the same monotonous dynamic, one shade of vocal color, and bleating-like-a-sheep vibrato through the entire movie. He has as many portentious pauses as Anne Hathaway, but at least his acting is merely boring rather than Olympian-level bizarre. For all the complaints about Russell Crowe’s vocal performance, Hugh Jackman’s is far more inexcusable because he’s the professional singer. During his every scene, Russell Crowe seemed to have only one thought go through his mind: ‘Get me the f-ck out of here!’ Crowe’s Javert has all the menace of Paul Giamatti playing a tollbooth collector, and his vocal performance occasionally bore the subtle but unmistakable sound of an auto tuner.

It’s doubly a shame, because on Friday night I saw a truly great movie version of Les Miserables that is less than 15 years old which hardly anyone seems to have seen. The performances of Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, and Uma Thurman, are as wonderful as Jackman, Crowe, and Hathaway are risible. The direction of Bille August (best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow), is as pitch-perfect as Tom Hooper’s is disgustingly wrong-headed.

If the movie can be said to have real strengths, it comes in scenes which the earlier movie either doesn’t  cover (the Thenardiers are in one scene and Young Eponine is simply an extra), or does a bit worse than the rest of the movie (Marius and Cossette). Both Sacha-Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are mildly funny and suitably slimy for the Thenardiers. And while the Master of the House sequence is nowhere near as fun or funny as it can be onstage, the staging is far more logical and coherent. But their performances wear badly as the movie goes on, and by the time we see them at the wedding, they’re simply an annoyance rather than funny. To my endless surprise, the best sequence in the movie is by far the sequence with the ingĂ©nues, which is usually the point when stage show sags the most. In My Life and A Heart Full of Love were almost downright moving, with the endlessly drab colors exchanged for the lush landscape of the Parisian spring and three young actors who can convincingly play young lovers. The rendition of On My Own was passable, but it suffered from all the same problems as the rest of the movie. Samantha Barks’s singing was decent, but done in immovable closeup even when it came time for Samantha Barks to belt the song’s climax, the belting of which could not erase memories of Eponine’s past, or even memories of how dumb the song is. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried were both serviceable even if they’re not particularly great singers. Redmayne in particular is a very fine actor whom I’ve seen live onstage, but his rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables was just plain dull.

The good intentions of all these choices are absolutely clear, and the result is that Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Hooper made a real movie instead of simply a filmed stage version. The only problem with this is that they made a tragicomically terrible movie, whose awfulness will become increasingly recognized with time like so many long-awaited movies. The only event in our lifetime that can probably compare to this is the arrival of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. When The Phantom Menace was first released to the American public, the reaction was simply lukewarm – the shock of seeing the badness of something so long awaited muted the first reaction. And yet the sense of outrage at the mind-crippling horribleness of what transpired only grew with time, and as the years wore on, it deservedly became known as one of the biggest disappointments ever to reach the screen. I have no doubt that this movie will have a similar trajectory.

(A fan video made from the musical with the far better movie. Compare and contrast if you like and mourn what might have been.)

1 comment:

  1. This is the most apt review of the film I have read. Since you first posted it, I have shared it with friends, and now that Les Mis has been Oscar-nominated for Best Makeup (?!) I'm doing something about that in my own blog and will certainly be linking back to you. Great write-up.