One would assume that the misery in “Les Miserables” is limited to its many downtrodden characters. But in Tom Hooper’s big-screen version, it’s the audience that’s truly feeling the agony, especially in the vicinity of the ears.
One would assume that the misery in “Les Miserables” is limited to its many down-trodden characters. But in Tom Hooper’s big-screen version, it’s the audience that’s truly feeling the agony, especially in the vicinity of the ears. Mine are still ringing from the bombastic vocalizing by A-list actors singing C-list lyrics that a 10-year-old could – and possibly did – write. But that’s nothing compared to the physical pain in the butt this nearly three-hour musical monstrosity creates.
Like Anne Hathaway’s doomed waif, Fantine, I was ready to check out around the 45-minute mark. But unlike her, I wasn’t lucky enough to die. I had to endure two more grueling hours of monotonous songs sung by blah singers shot in such extreme close-up that I could actually see the spit spewing from Russell Crowe’s mouth. At least the saliva was preferable to what else was seeping from his trap, and that would be his voice, or lack thereof. Dogs could be heard howling in the distance whenever the failed rocker opened his lips in service of his role as the sanctimonious French constable, Javert. No wonder his chief adversary, the reformed criminal, Jean Valjean (a fine Hugh Jackman), is so desperate to remain from his sight.
Unfortunately, there’s no place for us to hide from this tale of crime and punishment, and no regress beyond asking for your money back. I can count a grand total of three transcendent moments in this never-ending opera, and those would be Jackman’s singing of “Look Down” in the opening scene, Hathaway knocking “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the bastille and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter performing the movie’s liveliest number, “Master of the House,” with hilarious zest. The rest is like one long, slow dirge that woefully attempts to encapsulate 17 years of French history via a couple dozen indistinguishable tunes.
The story, loosely culled from Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, is as thin as Fantine’s emaciated body, pitting Jackman’s pitiful prisoner, a man who served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread in 1797, against Crowe’s letter-of-the-law peace officer, a man obsessed with returning Valjean to jail at all costs.
Shortly after Valjean’s release from captivity in 1815, he breaks parole, runs away, assumes a new identity and establishes himself as a successful factory owner and politician (no vetting back then). But just when everything is going great, he gets the double whammy of having Javert show up at the same time that one of his factory workers, Hathaway’s Fantine, is unjustly fired and forced to take to the streets, selling her hair, teeth and body in order to support her fatherless child, Cosette.
True to the film’s soap-opera tenor, Fantine quickly takes ill, and as per her dying wish, asks that Valjean take over guardianship of her daughter, now stuck living with Cohen and Carter’s thieving innkeepers, M. and Mme. Thenardier. Cut to nine years later, in 1832, and Cosette, now grown and played by Amanda Seyfried, is falling for a revolutionary named Marius (the drippy, Seth Meyers look-alike Eddie Redmayne from “My Week with Marilyn”), whose treasonous activities threaten to tear numerous lives asunder, including Valjean’s and Cosette’s. This is when the movie grows hopelessly silly and maudlin, emotions that Hooper, an Oscar winner for “The King’s Speech” and Emmy recipient for the “John Adams” miniseries, sentimentalizes to the hilt. So much so, I was moved – moved to laughter. Many wept during the finale, but I had to strenuously fight a bad case of the giggles. It’s simply one of the dumbest, sappiest endings ever set to film.
Perhaps Hooper should have taken a gander at the best “Les Miz” treatment ever, the tune-free 1935 version starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, to learn how to do Hugo right. Where that film was blessed with a fully fleshed-out story and characters, this “Les Miz” is little more than an enigma in which the songs, as bland as they are, take precedence over narrative. And don’t get me started on all the inaccuracies, chief among them, Daniel Huddlestone’s street urchin Gavroche, a French lad with a Cockney accent so heavy he sounds like a refugee from “Oliver.”
About the only thing truly productive regarding Hooper’s Les Miz” is that it renews your appreciation for great musicals by the likes of composers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein (“South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music”) and directors the caliber of Vincente Minnelli (“Meet Me in St. Louis”). You can cite all the box office records “Les Miz’ has set around the world and all the awards it has – and will – win, but the truth is that this “Miz” ain’t nothin’ but a miss.
LES MISERABLES (PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.) Cast includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Directed by Tom Hooper. Grade D