How much prestige can a poor film carry and still remain standing? You find out soon enough in Tom Hooper's hugely awaited film from the international smash hit musical version of Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables." Somewhere around the first hour, I began to think "you know, this might have been a terrific film without all the bloody singing." Which, of course, isn't the point at all.
The tip-off came long before the film's opening today. Every time you went to the movies or tuned into cable TV, you'd see a short film reminding you how radically different Hooper's way of filming "Les Misérables" was from other movie musicals: how the actors were recorded singing direct to film with a piano accompaniment that was later changed to a full orchestra.
And everyone's right: technically it's a great leap forward in dramatic immediacy. If the actors' singing and emoting are, finally, one and the same thing in musicals, we can stop fooling ourselves into thinking that's what we've been seeing all along. (What we saw was lip-synching to recordings.)
But as you watch the film, the words "So what?" thunder through your head. All that emphasis on the film's search for dramatic immediacy was practically a confession of how much anxiety the movie rightly has about its own impact.
Look, this is not a conventional "Broadway musical." It's perfectly described as a "pop opera," or "poperetta."
There are fewer than 10 sentences of spoken dialogue. And there's no dancing. All the energy, lightness and raffishness of America's musical theater has been jettisoned in favor of a whopping two and a half hours of spectacle and bathos, a compression of Hugo's masterpiece about a demonic manhunt conducted through the birth pangs of modern Europe.
All the lines are sung, not spoken. Recitative, it's called. Every half hour or so, there's a Big Tune to help you remember that musicals are supposed to leave stubborn traces of melody and lyrical panache clinging to your mind's ear, but it's utterly impossible to hear this musical score and think that it is melodically or lyrically distinguished.
Given the wildly incongruous success of Susan Boyle and her version of the show's "I Dreamed a Dream" it would be nothing if not disingenuous to say that none of the music of "Les Misérables" is memorable. Some is, but in a dramatically functional way.
Which leads back to the question that has long maintained opera's reputation as "the most grandly irreal of all the arts" in the words of writer and former UB professor John Barth (you've got to love that "irreal" instead of "unreal."): "Why are those people singing all the time?"
Beats the pants off me in "Les Misérables," which is, otherwise, filmed with both severe naturalism and visual grandeur from beginning to end. (Inspector Javert's fate is particularly cinematic.) The pitilessly prestigious nature of the enterprise is assaultively obvious in almost every minute: "This Is an Important Movie Buddyboy! We've Got a Smash Hit Theatrical Money Machine Here and We're Going to Fill the Screen With Close-ups of Great Performers Giving It Their All."
And so they do. Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, is so awardable every time he opens his mouth to sing you almost have trouble following the plot, even if you've read the book. Anne Hathaway is so genuinely moving as Fantine – forced to sell her hair, her teeth, and the rest of her body to support her daughter Cosette – that her version of the great song, giving the film its climax after an hour, leaves it with 90 minutes more of revolution still to come and fight for your attention.
By the time we get to the slaughter at the Parisian Barricades in 1832, a lot of the sass we hope for from musical theater is swallowed up. A great line: French soldiers walk up to the barricades, hoist rifles to their shoulders and ask their ragtag student nemeses: "Who's there?" "The French Revolution" comes the answer of one lone smartcracker. An awfully good line, but in the context of the movie it can't gain any comic traction.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do their best to provide black comic relief, but it wasn't comic enough to relieve very much.
The ancient movie friction between the naturalism of the camera and the "irreality" of through-sung dialogue is a very old one in movies. Some movies overcome it cleverly, some never do, which is the case here.
Also, the film is nothing if not sketchy in connecting brutal oppression with the tale of Valjean, the penitent and saintly ex-convict, and his hounding by literature's archetypally obsessed cop Javert (Russell Crowe).
When all is said and done, though, Victor Hugo and his mammoth tide of Romantic narrative have the last word. By the end, that is just about all that keeps you attached to the movie.
No one would have dreamed of such an expensive and spectacular version of Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables" if the musical was not already the most successful stage musical of all time.
But, so help me, how great this movie might have been with the same cast and no music.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe in Tom Hooper's version of the smash-hit musical based on Victor Hugo's masterpiece about suffering, penance and guilt in post-Revolutionary France. 157 minutes. PG-13; opens today.