Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cinema File #87: "Les Miserables" Review

I don't hate musicals. I'm an unabashed Disney fan, and while I'm not quite as conversant in live action musicals as others might be, I still have an appreciation for them when they are done well. Granted, my favorite musical of all time is Li'l Abner, so you may want to take all this with a grain of salt. Maybe its not a classic in everyone's eyes, but I love it, and I bring it up to preface my review of the latest big budget musical, so that when I start explaining what I don't like about it, it doesn't seem like I'm just not the kind of person who likes this kind of movie. I had no reason going into this to think I would hate Les Miserables, but by the halfway mark or so, I have never wanted a movie to end so badly in my life.

Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-con who breaks his parole to start a new life, adopting the daughter of a dead woman whose life he inadvertantly ruined while on the run from an obsessive lawman. Of course, when I say it tells the story, what I really mean is it sings it, and when I say it sings the story, I mean a lot. I've never seen this musical performed in any other context, but I can only assume its the same way on stage, and I just don't get it. Almost every line in this movie is sung, regardless of whether its in the context of a song, to the point where there is really no clear demarcation between the songs and the rest of the dialogue. This is so unnecessary and renders any drama not of the painfully melo variety impossible, as I can't help but laugh at moments I'm sure I'm supposed to cry or rage at.

With the movie being so dependent on the constant singing, its success hinges on the audiences' ability to be swept away by the majesty of the operatic granduer of it all, and you can count me as a member of that audience that just wasn't. It's not just that every line is sung, but that many are sung badly. I can't say anything was off key, as I don't know enough to know what the right key is and have to assume they're singing it the way they are supposed to, but there were so many sour notes that just kept hitting my ear wrong and taking me out of the action. Admittadly, I'm mostly talking about Russell Crowe, whose performance is perhaps the most laughably bad I've seen in his entire career. He is clearly not meant for musicals, but he isn't the only problem on the singing front.

Sometimes they bring the pitch higher or lower to make a dramatic point and it just sounds silly, and then every once in a while they'll stop singing entirely and just speak their line, which is fine, but why the inconsistency? With so many lines that shouldn't be sung being sung, why not just do it all that way instead of breaking the pattern seemingly at random? I think they even make a subtle joke about this towards the end with a moment where you expect a line to be sung, only for it to be spoken instead. There were so many scenes in this movie that almost seemed like a parody of a dramtic production, so sweeping and over the top regardless of whether the moment actually called for it.

Valjean's plight paralleled with the dogged pursuit of his enemy and the harsh circumstances of his soon to be daughter and her mother are genuinely captivating up to a point, and I was fine up until the second time jump, but once we find ourselves in what I guess you would call the second act with a set of revolutionary characters who only exist as the contexual spring board for a shitty love story, I was just done with this crap. Did we need this many characters? When you're already telling this complex story of competing philosophies, pitting mercy and absolutism against each other in an epic struggle across time, did you really need to tack on the young love at first sight bullshit? At one point all of a sudden, we're introduced to this brunette who it turns out is the grown up version of a girl we saw for like five seconds in the first act as a child, and she gets her own seven minute song about how much she loves some guy we also just met. Who the fuck is she and why should I care? Nobody all that important as it turned out.

I lost count of how many times this movie could have easily ended, but instead just went on and on long past the point where I could possibly give a shit. Oh no, ValJeam has to leave. Fade to Black. No, wait, we gotta go find him, but then we do and he's happy because his daughter is safe and has found love. Fade to Black. No wait, we need to bring back the whole God thing again. Fade to Black. No, wait, we gotta bring all the people who died back for an extended fantasy sequence and yet another fucking reprise. For the love of God, please fade to fucking Black already! And don't give me that shit about fealty to the source material. They cut songs for time out of movie musicals all the time, and they do it for a reason, because if you don't you make me want to kill myself watching your movie! (Note: After I wrote the first draft of this review, I was informed that not only did they include every song from the play, but they even added a new one so they could get a best original song nomination at the Oscars. This fact makes me want to hurt people.)

I'm not the right person to review this movie, but it has nothing to do with whether or not I can appreciate a good musical. When I reviewed The Hobbit, my basic take away was that it was basically Tolkien porn designed for the most hardcore of fans to indulge their devotion as long as reasonably possible, even and especially at the expense of casual fans like myself. Les Miserables is the musical theater equivalent of The Hobbit, and if that's your thing, go nuts. Its probably pedantic to call something like this self indulgent as I imagine that's sort of the point, but its not that hard to impress me. I liked Vamps for fuck's sake and its not like that was anywhere near my wheelhouse.

Les Miserables is as epic and passionate and bold as any die hard fan of the original play no doubt hoped it would be. If that appeals to you, you're sure to love it and be humming the tunes for weeks after leaving the theater. I couldn't for the life of me remember a single one of them meshed together as they were with every non-song line. Me, I'm going to down some Kickapoo Joy Juice and go watch Li'l Abner again.

Course I don't even think Jubilation T. Cornpone could have saved this movie.


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