Chicago (2002) spoiled me. It made me think that a new era of outstanding movie musicals was suddenly possible. Well, it has now been a decade since Chicago arrived, and I’m still waiting for that new movie-musical heyday. No one can say that moviemakers haven’t been trying. There have even been a couple of uneven but pretty good tries: Dreamgirls (2006) and Sweeney Todd (2007). However, most of these attempts have resulted in dreadful movies: Rent, Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Nine, Rock of Ages, and, finally, Mamma Mia, a solid candidate for worst movie musical of all time. All these films were based on tried-and-true Broadway hits, with presumably built-in fan bases yearning to see these works immortalized onscreen. And now Les Miserables joins the group, already out front with its Golden Globe and SAG nominations, as well as sensational grosses in its first week. It seems to have everything going for it, except that it’s not very good.
One of the splendors of the screen’s Chicago is how it found ways to make its damn-good source material seem even better, primarily by finding its own identity as a movie (specifically by having all the numbers spring from Roxie Hart’s imagination). It was a faithful adaptation yet also something brand new, allowing fans of the original show to revel anew in Kander and Ebb’s estimable creation. The film of Les Miz has the opposite effect, exposing every shortcoming in the material while diminishing its virtues. I was never a big fan of the show but I do remember being moved by some of the numbers, particularly because of the ways in which they were staged. A few of those stage images have been seared into my theatregoing brain. A rouser like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” built excitingly onstage, while in the movie it just seems chaotic, unfocused. The quiet ”Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was touching in the theatre because we felt the literal absence of those who had died, no longer in their chairs, but less clarity is given to their physical surroundings in the movie and so the sequence has no visual potency, rendering the song as sad in a more general way. The movie also reminded me that the score has only about six melodies endlessly recycled for two and a half hours.
Director Tom Hooper has come up with a solution in search of a problem: no prerecorded vocals for his movie. The actors sing “live” and perform the songs “in the moment.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with singing “live” in a movie, but it makes me wonder if Hooper made this decision because he doesn’t like musicals and decided that he was the guy to fix them. If the results were wonderful, we could all be cheering his guts in breaking with tradition. Not that there had been a whole lot of complaining about lip-synching all these years. No one has ever said, “That Singin’ in the Rain is nearly great, except for all that prerecorded singing.” Or “Isn’t it a shame that Judy Garland couldn’t connect emotionally to her recordings of ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ’Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ and ‘The Man That Got Away’ once the cameras were rolling?” Lip-synching hasn’t been such a bad thing. It certainly helped singers save their voices when a number had to be shot and reshot 40 times or more. Barbra Streisand famously goes from “live” singing to lip-synching during “My Man” at the end of Funny Girl, beginning in a talky, weepy manner, then soaring vocally. It’s a seamless transition. And Barbra didn’t sacrifice immediacy or truth or feeling. I don’t mean to be some kind of cheerleader for the cause of lip-synching, but I don’t feel that it has been some kind of problem to overcome.
The main drawback with the “live” singing in Les Miz is that it encourages the singers to go in some misguided directions. Chief among these is self-indulgence, with the performers feeling compelled to do things other than sing, to strenuously “act,” to cry, to pause, to slow down, to swallow lyrics, all of which ironically get in the way of the songs’ impact. Everyone here is guilty of this at one time or another, getting in their own way. You can sing or you can cry, but you can’t really do both. Don’t tell me that crying makes it more real. Then why sing at all? Singing in musicals is a heightened expression of emotion, so you really have to bite the bullet and sing! Communicate through the singing, not in spite of it. Allow the emotion to come through the voice, not the tears, not the muffled lyrics. The results here have a numbing sameness, with plenty of close-up emoting and much unsatisfactory singing. That lack of variety is one of the reasons this Les Miz feels so long and so dull. Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne come off best in this movie, the most adept at singing and acting at the same time. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried are the two most unacceptable cast members, simply unable to meet the score’s basic vocal demands. (At least Crowe looks great in his uniforms.) Speaking of Crowe’s Javert, is he the only policeman in France? He manages to appear in just about every moment (no matter where we are) in which there’s the slightest infraction of the law.
I don’t recall the plot’s coincidences ever seeming this ludicrous in any other screen version of Les Miz. And I don’t remember finding Victor Hugo’s characters as cardboard as they are here, though I guess the role of Jean Valjean has historically been a movie cipher. Neither Fredric March (in 1935) nor Michael Rennie (in 1952) could do much with the part, though Liam Neeson was quite fine in 1998. Hugh Jackman’s acting is intensely committed yet blank and unaffecting, while his singing sounds pinched, worsened by an uncontrolled vibrato. Things perk up with the arrival of the students, although the romance between Redmayne and Seyfried is one of those love-at-first-sight situations so silly that even Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy might giggle at it. Worse is the use of the rebel child Gavroche, Les Miz‘s Artful Dodger (but meant to be taken seriously). All those handsome revolutionaries die because they are egged on—by a pipsqueak!—to continue their hopeless last stand. Is this infant some kind of expert on Parisian politics?
Worst of all is the tiresome “comic relief” of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (lazily reprising her Mrs. Lovett). And they keep coming back, long after you’re sure you’ll never see them again, reliably unfunny each time.
Finally, this is not a spectacle. It’s a faux spectacle, with a computer-generated Paris. There’s actually no Paris at all. Give me the bad old days when a stinker like Hello, Dolly! (1969) could at least give you a shiver of pleasure at seeing a real parade with hundreds of real extras. Les Miz is dreary serious-minded kitsch. Even so, I won’t give up on movie musicals, not yet, even though they appear to have given up on me.