Tom Hooper, What Have You Done?

A parade of bad decisions. Transparent award season grandstanding. Ammo for detractors of the genre. Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is all of those things and more, a colossal miscalculation by nearly all of those involved. There’s an innate divisiveness when it comes to musicals. Fans of the format (and I consider myself one) will defend to the death the strength of storytelling through music. Others loathe the idea of characters spontaneously breaking into song, often in unison. It’s unlikely that these two groups will ever be united, but “Les Misérables,” is all its “sung-through” glory, does its best to drive a stake between moviegoers with a certain maniacal glee. Fans of the source material will likely be the most forgiving, but they shouldn’t be. Like Javert spitting in the face of Jean Valjean, Hooper goes out of his way to strip the songs and story of their majesty through heaps of poor creative choices.

Musicals written for the stage are just that. They’re penned with space in mind – space between actors and sets and between the stage and the audience. Most Broadway-style theaters border on cavernous, so the best showtunes are engineered that way. Intimacy is difficult to pull off in that context, so the Rodgers and Hammersteins and Sondheims traditionally wrote in broad strokes, both lyrically and musically. Tom Hooper? He’s decided to shoot 90% of his film in close-ups, adding an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia to the most sweeping of songs. The iconic “I Dreamed A Dream?” Forget the context of Fantine’s meltdown. We see nothing but her tear-streamed face for the duration of the song. “On My Own?” Hooper treats us to the same medium close-up of Eponine for the entire tune.

Why waste such obviously elaborate period piece trappings? Why shoot a classic tale of late 19th century France like it’s a straight-to-DVD “Cloverfield” sequel? As the camera lurches like a boxer avoiding a late-round knockout, we’re left with nothing but a sense of indifference to what little we’re seeing. Even if we want to enjoy the music, it’s impossible without the proper amount of visual cues. Whether or not Hooper realizes it, music and film require a sort of symbiosis, so leaning too heavily on one or the other can be absolutely catastrophic – and it is here.

As if the disorienting visuals aren’t enough to alienate the audience, the music, too, lacks breathability. Since “Les Misérables” is 95% singing and 5% dialogue, we constantly jump from song to song without any breaks. The occurrence of wide shots or any kind of silence is a welcome tonic, but neither happens frequently. To anyone who finds Hooper’s union of music and visuals as uncomfortable as I did, it’s essentially 160 straight minutes of his experiment without respite. I was as frustrated by the experience as I’ve ever been in a theater, and it’s even more shameful because the problems are not inherent in the material. It’s clear that the creative team fell in love with their vision for the picture and nothing was going to dissuade them from following through with it. If only someone had saved them from themselves.

The cast is a mixed bag. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of our compassionate hero, Jean Valjean, is a comfortable fit, but his sing-talking quickly becomes tedious. Russell Crowe, as the petty policeman, Javert, struggles mightily with the high notes, and it’s a wonder that nobody thought to change the key to any of his songs. The decision to record the vocals live was far more interesting in theory than in practice, as the actors being allowed to create their own pace often leaves them slightly (and distractingly) ahead of their orchestral backing. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) does well in her brief role, but it’s Sacha Baron Cohen as the thieving innkeeper, Thénardier, who makes the biggest impact and provides the film with its only laughs.

Amanda Seyfried gets surprisingly little screen time as the grown-up Cosette (the illegitimate daughter of Fantine), leaving Eddie Redmayne (Marius Pontmercy) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) to carry most of the emotional weight of the second half of the film. In fact, Cosette is barely seen with the people she is allegedly so important to – Valjean and Fantine. The film is long but often feels rushed, and the songs are filled with so much exposition that it’s easy to get caught up in the music and overlook important pieces of the story. It’s also difficult for the actors to emote as much as they might when they’re delivering so much vital information. But these quibbles are more to do with the source material than Tom Hooper’s creative decisions.

The production values are strong, but we get to see so little of this world that its impact is muted. This wasn’t an inexpensive production, so it’s inexplicable that Hooper lingers on his actors and largely ignores the time and place in which they’re singing. The single original song of the bunch, “Suddenly,” is sung with more passion and clarity than anything else in the film, and it’s a pleasant surprise amidst a sea of disappointment. If “Les Misérables” does anything well, it’s in keeping up appearances of being an Oscar contender. It has the cast, the scope, the songs, and the creative pedigree. Less discerning audiences might be happy to go along for the ride, but anyone expecting the be-all and end-all of movie musicals is going to be less than thrilled. If this is the future of the Hollywood musical, count me out. Musicals are antithetical to the style represented here, making this pathetic attempt an insult to the genre and its fans. Watch the stage version instead.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: December 25, 2012
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)