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12/19/2012

Review: 'Les Misérables' starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe


By now you've probably heard a lot about Les Misérables, and almost certainly most of it has been in glowing superlatives. Oh, the majesty! The power! Such emotion! More than likely all of this was in reference to Anne Hathaway, whose tearful and heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" is far and away the most memorable aspect of Tom Hooper's overwrought and undercooked adaptation of the Broadway musical. A couple of years ago he took home Best Picture honors for the vastly underrated The King's Speech, capitalizing on Colin Firth's captivating performance to carry the day. And now Hooper's doing much the same again, hoping Hathaway is enough for everybody not to notice how underwhelming the rest is.

To be perfectly fair, Les Misérables has always been hokey, and that extends to Victor Hugo's 19th century novel, but Hooper obviously feels that the cinematic version needs to be bathed in gimmicks and overdramatics to the point of caricature. The primary gimmick he employs is a double-edged sword, having his rather remarkable cast perform the story's most memorable songs live on set. It's a bold decision, and as Hathaway's beleaguered and destitute Fantine unleashes the central tune, you think for a moment that Hooper made the right decision. Maybe so if there were no Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, or Hugh Jackman to prove otherwise. Crowe brings a vocal butterknife to a gunfight where he's required to bust out some pretty mighty tunes as Javert, a fanatical police officer who holds a lifelong grudge against Jean Valjean(Jackman), who was imprisoned for nearly twenty years for stealing bread. Crowe, for all the masculinity inherent in the character, is strangely muted here, not helped by the way he tip-toes through every song. He may be pretty good with his Aussie rock band, but Les Miz requires sterner stuff, and he doesn't measure up.

As Valjean, Jackman cuts loose with the full brunt of his hamminess, and Hooper welcomes it with open arms. It's quite remarkable to see some targeting Jackman for awards nomination, and the only explanation is that they like the warble in his voice or the way he sledge hammers every emotion home. Valjean serves his time and creates a new life for himself as the mayor of a town and a shop owner, where poor Fantine is fired for something she didn't do. Injustice and the desire to rectify it are the engine that drives the story, as we see Fantine's life rapidly deteriorate, giving up every last possession she has(including her hair, teeth, and dignity) to continue supporting her daughter, Cosette. Valjean turns up in her final moments, and the despair he expresses over what his actions have wrought would be touching if Jackman wasn't butchering them in song.

Jumping forward a few years into the heart of the French Revolution, Valjean has now taken guardianship over Cosette(Amanda Seyfried), securing her from a grungy pair of con artists played with grungy flair by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Where the rest of the film is all too stuffy, they at least come off as having some actual fun. Doesn't hurt that their rendition of 'Master of the House' is peppy and catchy in ways many of the other songs simply aren't.

As Cosette instantaneously falls in love with the brave revolutionary Marius(Eddie Redmayne), it becomes startlingly clear that at no point are we given any reason to care about these people. A lot of this is the structure Hooper employs where the bulk of the emotion is carried in verse, and if you aren't invested in the songs then you probably aren't invested in the lyrics. It only gets more awkward and laughable when they try to go from song to typical conversation, with Jackman looking quite foolish bellowing the simplest of statements. 

Hooper brings his trademark sweep and scope, but his camera is an absolute mess. He's a stickler for detail, which is why his films always have a great authentic look. If only he could figure out how to shoot his actors. That would be nice. He seems completely flummoxed how to bring the majesty and presence of the stage into the cinematic world, filming his characters from a variety of strange angles that take you right out of the moment. Why are we constantly right up in everyone's face? Gee, can we get another overhead shot of Paris, please?

Despite their faults, everyone involved is giving it the ol' college try, but other than Hathaway, Cohen, and Carter, only Samantha Barks deserves any sort of credit. Shouldn't come as much of a surprise she excels with her vocal range and heartfelt performance as Eponine, since she's played the character to great acclaim before.

Hooper has made a film that fans will likely adore, but others will have trouble connecting with. Since the screening I attended was full of sniffling and shedding tears, he's managed to once again fool people into thinking he's made a masterpiece.