Monday, February 18, 2013
Les Miserables the Movie: Why the Hate?
It seems a little strange to use the word "hate" with regard to this movie, because compared to Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, it is far more critically -- and certainly far more commercially -- successful. At present, it sits at 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. That's not the stellar rating of, say, the very overrated Silver Linings Playbook, but it does mean that more than two-thirds of critics thought that the movie was worth their time. In addition, Les Miserables was nominated for eight Oscars (compared to Evita's five), including significant nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture. It has already won more Golden Globes than any other movie in 2012.
Yet those who hate the movie have been very vocal about their hatred. From their outbursts, you would have thought that watching cats get vivisected for two hours was more worth their while. One critic claimed that throughout the entire movie, he sat cowering, "lost in shame and chagrin." Another griped that "this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines." More than one critic even created a cutesy song to express his disgust, such as in this review. The complaints might be easier to dismiss if they didn't come from some well-known publications such as The New York Times, the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and TIME. And none of these critics surpass Roger Ebert, whose hatred for Les Miserables is so pure and visceral, he won't even write a proper review to explain his hatred (or, for that matter, why he gave a positive review to Evita).
Many of the complaints can be traced back to plain old dislike of the original musical. Insipid songs, dull lyrics, bombastic score. No movie adaptation could entirely fix flaws in the original material, unless it did as one critic wanted, which was chuck half of the songs and completely reimagine the material, like Caberet. Some critics' gripes even went back to the structure of the novel. How come Jean Valjean stops being the main focus and all of these new characters (aka the students) are introduced? The story loses momentum! It's too complicated! They were no doubt used to the other adaptations, which reduce Les Miserables to a simple cat-and-mouse game between Valjean and Javert, while the students are a distant roar in the background.
So what to do? Do those of us who like the movie simply admit defeat and bow to their superior taste? How is it that so many intelligent people can hate the movie and musical so passionately, while other intelligent people like -- love -- Les Miserables without irony? Is it because we first saw it at an age when we were most susceptible? I first saw Les Miz when I was 13 -- prime Eponine-worshipping age. But if all it took was seeing a musical when we were most susceptible, then I should have fallen head-over-heels in love with RENT. There are other reasons to appreciate Les Miserables as a musical, and they boil down to this: if you had to make a musical of a 1,000-plus page classic with dozens of characters and subplots, the current musical is about the best that you can expect.
Are some of the lyrics hackneyed? No doubt. "But the tigers come at night!" "At the barricade of freedom!" "My race is not yet run!" But in a three-hour sung-through musical, that is unavoidable. There are also several really good lines, such as: "He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?" If certain characters (like Cosette) get the short shrift, then at least the musical remembers that the student revolution exists, and why, and is able to tie it to a larger theme. It's not just some background event that gives Valjean something to do when he's not being chased by Javert. And a lot of the songs are pretty terrific and, yes, memorable. "Do You Hear the People Sing?" "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables." "I Dreamed a Dream." "Who Am I?" And is there a better song to take you into the intermission than "One Day More"?
Yet many of the "haters" of the movie are people who loved the musical. Their reasons appear to be multifold. The singing wasn't as good as it is on stage. They hated the close ups. There was too much in-your-face emoting. The barricade scenes weren't as grand as they are on stage. They didn't like that Eponine's part was so reduced. Russell Crowe...
All valid criticisms, and all things that bothered me slightly when I watched the movie. Yet I was still able to enjoy it. Will I feel the same way in 10 or 20 years? Who knows. I guess what I need to address is why I consider Les Miserables to be a Movie Musical That Got It Right, as opposed to one that got it wrong.
In my Evita critique, I cited the following reasons why the musical did not work: not enough real emotion; too many forced attempts by director Alan Parker to make the audience feel; unfocused message, leaving you uncertain how to view the title character; a good-but-not-great performance by Madonna; okay singing and awful lip syncing. In my The Phantom of the Opera critique, my reasons were: the title character was disastrously miscast; the atmosphere was lacking; and there were way too many silly moments that were meant to be serious.
So how does Les Miserables compare?
Forced Emotion. One of the things I hated most about Evita was the way Alan Parker really tried to manipulate the audience into feeling emotion when the movie itself couldn't provide it. Two specific examples are the close-up of a crying Eva at the very beginning and the flashback sequence during "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Yet couldn't you argue that Hooper constantly manipulates your emotions as well? Whose idea was it again to hold that camera just inches from Anne Hathaway's face? I would argue yes... and no.
To some extent, all directors are manipulating the audience's emotions in movies where the audience is required to feel something, whether it's the choice of camera angle, editing, or music. What annoyed me about Parker's close-up of little Eva in the beginning is that it seemed like an attempt to force a bond with her before we had a sense of who she was or what she was going to do. Look, a crying child! LOVE HER. I tend to find most shots of crying children to be manipulative -- lazy shorthand for directors who want to send a message that something is unjust. I felt as though Parker didn't trust the audience to empathize with Eva on their own, which is also why he resorted to the flashback sequence during "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." "The audience certainly won't be carried away by the music and able to reflect upon Eva's journey on their own, so I'll just remind them of what took place maybe 20 minutes ago."
By contrast, Hooper is manipulative, but at least by the time he has those big close-up songs, we've already seen the characters' journey and have some idea of what they've been through. Before "I Dreamed a Dream," we see Fantine unjustly fired from her factory job, her hair cut and teeth pulled, and raped by a sailor. The audience already has an idea of how awful her life was, so when she starts belting out her rage in close up, it makes sense. Likewise, by the time Valjean sings "What Have I Done?", we've seen his life as a convict, how he was mistreated as a free man, and then the Bishop's kind, live-saving act. By the time Marius sings "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," we have already met the friends he refers to, and have a sense of his loss. Hooper never resorts to flashbacks or montages to convey emotion, even when I think he should (see "Suddenly"). Instead he trusts the actors to convey their characters' emotions through their facial expressions and vocal choices.
Is that always successful? No. I will refrain from stating the most obvious example and just say that after three viewings, I think Anne Hathaway overacts in "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Come to Me." Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman's performance sometimes walks a fine line between moving and comedy; depending upon your mood, you could see it as either (I see it as moving). That's not to say that neither gives a good performance, but I prefer Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne, who are quieter and subtler, and thus more effective. Yet on the whole, I think Hooper's approach is much fresher and more genuine than Parker's, and thus more successful at what it was trying to accomplish.
Disastrously Miscast. In my Phantom critique, I was not shy about stating my belief that Gerard Butler killed the movie. The movie was actually okay until he arrived -- then it took a steep dive. The rest of the cast tried to save it, but could not prevail. Butler's casting was a disaster not only because he was drastically different from the Phantom of the novel and musical, but also because he brought absolutely nothing to enhance the role. The Phantom was a physically and mentally warped being who was nonetheless a genius and capable of producing angelic music. He lived in a dark, elaborate underground world of his own creation. He was mysterious, hypnotic, and deadly.
Butler's singing was mediocre. He looked solid and blandly handsome. I no more believed that he created that underground world than that I had. And don't get me started on his "birth defect," which was basically a bad skin burn. The problem is that so much of The Phantom of the Opera hinges upon the mystique that the Phantom provides. Without that, it is nothing more than a pretty-looking, so-so mystery.
Many people have compared Russell Crowe to Butler, and while his performance disappoints, I don't think it fails spectacularly the way Butler's does. First, while Javert is a critical character, his role is not as critical as that of the Phantom. If this version of Les Miserables were just a Valjean-Javert cat-and-mouse game, I might say otherwise, but instead, it has other themes and important characters to hang its hat on. The most crucial character is Jean Valjean himself, who is embodied quite well by Hugh Jackman. Les Miserables is mainly his journey, not a journey into the mind and motives of Javert. Then there is the tragically short life of Fantine, as well as the story of Marius and the student revolutionaries. Les Miserables is a true ensemble show, and apart from Valjean, does not force one character to carry too much of its weight.
Second, Crowe isn't as much of a disaster as advertised. His singing pales in comparison to that of stage Javerts, and people have criticized him for being far too stiff. However, I think he has a rigid solidness that works for the role. He looks like someone who respects the law, and has the presence to be more than just a thorn in Valjean's side. Far from being vacant, his eyes frequently look troubled. Crowe also has some very effective scenes, including one without any singing or dialogue. Could someone else have done better in the role? Of course, but you could say that about most of the roles -- about most roles anywhere. I suppose I will always wonder whether Paul Bettany or Anthony Warlow or Philip Quast or whoever else might have been more suitable. Yet while the latter two, at least, would have brought the singing, it's questionable whether they would have brought presence and good acting choices. Crowe doesn't make Les Miserables better, but he doesn't kill it, either.
Apart from him, I can't think of anyone who rises to the level of miscast, just some whose voices were not as strong.
The Singing. It's almost an accepted truth that in movie musicals, the singing is never as good as in the stage version. That applies to Evita, Phantom, and Les Miserables. That said, apart from Butler in Phantom (and maybe Crowe in Les Miz), there is no really embarrassing singing in any of the three. Instead, the issues are how genuine the singers come across. Evita staged a lot of entertaining, elaborate singing numbers, but the songs never seemed to be coming from the actors' mouths. The effect was especially repulsive in "Eva Beware of the City." By contrast, the lip syncing in Phantom wasn't painfully bad, but I could still tell it was lip syncing. The staging tended to leech any tension or passion from songs like "All I Ask of You." Just watch a stage performance on YouTube to see the difference. By contrast, the singing and the emotion behind it feel very immediate in Les Miserables. Actors would sing through their tears, sing while sighing, sound flat one minute and lilting the next. It doesn't always work, but it is very rarely boring.
The Focus. I have criticized Evita's muddled focus, and to an extent I think Phantom's is muddled as well. What exactly is the message of Phantom? Ugliness is only in your mi-- never mind. If you are tortured enough, you will soon learn to love your captor? That's more like it. Whereas the focus of Les Miserables never seems to stray from showing the plight of the poor, and how unjust and horrible French society was in the first half of the nineteenth century. Some have argued that the movie loses focus once the student scenes arrive, but if so, that is the fault of the novel as much as the musical.
Miscellaneous. Les Miserables fares better than the other two movies in all of the categories above. But what also pushes it over the top are its grand sense of history and the innate dignity that it gives to its characters (even, arguably, the Thenardiers). The characters don't just pretend to embrace love and social justice because they're supposed to -- they really seem to believe in it. Whereas Evita is also a historical epic, but you never get the sense that any of the characters believe in anything or are a part of history. And Che is the-- why is Che there again? Che is supposed to represent the Everyman, but it never seems like anything is at stake for him. In Les Miserables, you watch the students sing about freedom and prepare to die for it.
Other aspects like pacing might have bothered me in all three movies, but it did not feel like a deal breaker in any of them. Likewise, all three had a vast array of costumes and elaborate set pieces. What makes Les Miserables a Movie Musical That Got It Right is, again, the actors' passionate, accessible performances, giving the movie a vibrancy that both Evita and Phantom utterly lacked. Maybe in two decades I'll feel differently, but for now, I am comfortable with my choice.