Grade: 41 (C)
Whatever happened to the movie musical? Why is it that no one seems to be able to pull it off anymore? Oh, sure, there are exceptions (Tim Burton’s Hammer horror take on Sweeney Todd, Lars von Trier’s gut-wrenching Dancer in the Dark, Baz Luhrmann’s delightfully hyperactive Moulin Rouge!), but modern movie musicals are by and large dreary affairs. Les Miserables has a high pedigree: it’s an adaptation of a blockbuster musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, and it’s crammed with Oscar-winners and nominees (Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carte), and Broadway vets (Samantha Barks, Hugh Jackman). But Les Miserables’ powerful material is hampered by the same problems that plague most modern movie musicals: bad directing, weak performances, and a sense of self-importance mixed with pointlessness.
1800s France: Jean Valjean (Jackman) is paroled after serving a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, but the overzealous Inspector Javert (Crowe) and the unforgiving French system makes his life a living hell. Valjean breaks parole, assumes a new identity, and becomes a prominent member of society. When one of his workers, Fantine (Hathaway), dies, Valjean takes her daughter Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried) under his wing as he flees from Javert. When the two return to Paris in the midst of the 1832 June Rebellion, Cosette falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student revolutionary also loved by Eponine (Barks), the daughter of Cosette’s cruel former caretakers (Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Javert, meanwhile, remains unyielding and single-minded in his pursuit of Valjean.
Russell Crowe has been knocked for his weak performance, and not without reason: the man sounds like he’s has a small animal trapped in his throat. But it isn’t fair to single Crowe out as the dud in the cast when most of the big stars are just as lousy, even when they seem ideally cast. Jackman is a charismatic actor and strong singer with experience in musical theatre, but he’s either singing way outside of his range or otherwise uncomfortable singing for the camera, and his acting isn’t much better. Where Crowe is stoic to a fault, Jackman is playing to cheap seats. Still, they’re better than Carter and Cohen, both abysmally hammy (especially Cohen, whose Pepe Le Pew accent is particularly grating considering that no one else is trying for a French accent) in spite of knocking similar comedic roles in Sweeney Todd out of the park.
Les Miserables isn’t without its bright spots: Aaron Tveit nails young revolutionary Enjolras’s fiery passion on “Red and Black”. Redmayne’s work as the passionate young lover Marius mostly makes up for Seyfried’s anemic work as Cosette. Barks, reprising the role she played on West End, is an absolute natural, her gorgeous rendition of “On My Own” a stark contrast to Jackman and Crowe’s butchering of “Who Am I?” and “Stars”. Hathaway is the sole movie star who escapes from the film unscathed, and her gasping, teary-eyed performance of the show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” represents the emotional peak of the film.
But that’s a problem: the scene comes about thirty or forty minutes into the film, and nothing in the rest of the film’s 160-minute runtime is half as successful. Hooper’s tight long-take close-up on Hathaway’s expressive, distraught face seems like a smart move, but he repeats it with practically every other number in the film, giving each number a same-y feel. Worse, Hooper’s irritating “stick the actors in the corner of the frame for no reason” tactic from the superior The King’s Speech is back with a vengeance, the much-ballyhooed live singing tactic is aggressively bombastic when done directly to the camera every time, and the film’s color palette is drab and dull. It's an absolutely exhausting an assaultive experience.
The film’s editing, meanwhile, is flat-out inept. Hooper’s every cut is completely arbitrary, and it constantly undercuts the natural rhythm of the musical numbers. It’s particularly distracting in the Act I closer “One Day more”, which strains to match the film version of West Side Story’s “Tonight Quintet” but can’t establish any cinematic rhythm. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Hooper’s average went from undistinguished to outright incompetent in just one film. Really, it’s more of a sign that we should leave movie musicals to real directors.