Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Working Title Films
It takes a special kind of movie musical to make even a lover of musicals want to yell: “For the love of Jeebus, stop singing!” But the elephantine, grab-you-by-the-throat-and-stomp-you-silly film version of Les Misérables, the 1980 stage musical international juggernaut by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer, does just that.
The director of this weepy epic, Tom Hooper, won an Oscar for the deft, offhanded and modest The King’s Speech. He’s back in full-on steamroller mode here, as are his all-singing, heavily emoting cast, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen among them. Heaven help any unsuspecting ticket buyer attempting to resist the picturesquely grimy, gaudy wallowing and wailing served up here. Of course, Victor Hugo’s classic, sprawling novel powers the whole enterprise, and the great writer’s work is quite a slog—one that encompasses the relentless manhunt of a long-imprisoned peasant who stole a loaf of bread, a revolution, social injustice, noble self-sacrifice, a romance and a stunning body count of the downtrodden and the politically impassioned.
In the movie version, of course, all this is set to song, over 50 of them, in fact, and a few of them all-too-familiar anthems like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Where would Glee, American Idol and Susan Boyle be without Les Mis? Much has been made of Hooper’s “innovation” of demanding his cast sing live and on camera rather than to prerecorded tracks. Actors sang live in movies through the ’20s and ’30s. But, anyway, in Les Mis we get Hugh Jackman in fever pitch as the emaciated, impassioned Jean Valjean. Because pretty much every musical number in the movie is filmed in vein-popping, head-wagging, tonsil-tickling close-up, we get to witness Jackman struggling just as hard to hit the high notes as his character does to redeem his checkered past.
It isn’t news that Jackman has likeability and charisma to burn, but his voice, though good, is pinched and nasal; he’s better seen singing than merely heard. Her head shaved, her body skeletal, Anne Hathaway in wide-eyed, tremulous, early Liza Minnelli mode pulls out all the stops as the destroyed, put-upon tragic heroine Fantine. She makes a banquet out of her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” and, doing it in one uninterrupted take, she electrifies. But both Hathaway’s and Jackman’s Broadway-style theatrics and overactive tear ducts violate a cardinal rule: make us cry for you; don’t do all the crying for us.
Aside from Jackman’s and Hathaway’s star turns, the other very best performance comes from full-voiced Eddie Redmayne, who kills as the young revolutionary Marius and the lover of pretty waif Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, sounding frilly and auto-tuned). Redmayne is convincingly idealistic, gangly and impassioned, and he gets to strut his stuff in the best, most stirring section of the 157-minute movie. But, not to be outdone by his costars, he too unleashes the waterworks in his well sung and beautifully acted aria to his fallen fellow revolutionaries, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are on hand for badly needed comic relief. As the thieving, scheming tavern owners, they’re flat-out ghastly in their “Master of the House” number, mincing, mugging and mumbling as if they’d wandered in from a community theater company mash-up: Oliver!: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
But Russell Crowe as the monomaniacal, twisted lawman Javert is the movie’s real casualty. He looks lost, empty, desperately uncomfortable and so downright silly in his meant-to-be-showstopper of a final number that you may have trouble stifling the giggles. Instead of being convincingly tormented and conflicted, Crowe looks and sounds gassy. Nobody in this movie goes the less-is-more route. Les Mis is so bombastic, emotionally hollow and loud, let alone desperate to make us choke up, that we stagger out of the theater feeling like we’ve been stormed as mercilessly as the barricade.