The Wretched Les Miserables

Les Misérables

2012 | 158 minutes | Dir. Tom Hooper | Universal

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Les Misérables is a timeless story, adapted many times for the stage and screen.  People can’t get enough of the tragic tale of human love, triumph and redemption, and I am among them.  Everyone went to see this year’s Les Miz.   I heard a friend say that if you like movies, you’d like the movie, and if you liked the musical you’d hate the movie.  I like movies.  I liked the movie.

That said, it could have been better.

Because every big- budget box office predator had a gimmick this year, all the singing in Les Miz was recorded live.  Actors in a musical don’t get take II, and Les Miz likes to show off its actors’ raw emotions by throwing them in front of excruciatingly long close- ups and taking their voices fresh off the set.

Some of the film’s actors benefited from the unforgiving production process.  Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine, is set to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Unfortunately, some actors still benefit from some good old Hollywood magic.  Hugh Jackman was a pain to watch.  Too bad the film centered on him.

I had high hopes for Jackman, having noticed him in the London stage revival of Oklahoma! He played Curly.  He was fantastic.  He sang with a great baritone.  I expected he’d have no problem playing Jean Valjean.  Perhaps because I’ve never seen Les Mis the musical, I underestimated the difficulty of Valjean’s singing role.  Jackman couldn’t do it.  His voice was consistently too high, too strained, too weak, too pained and too painful to listen to.  At first I thought maybe the director wanted Jackman to sound like a tired old man, until a tired old man actually opened his mouth and sang with a voice far stronger than Jackman’s.  Maybe Jean Valjean is supposed to sound like a floundering amateur, but given’s the musical’s successful run (and Broadway cast recording), I highly doubt it.

The sad part about Jackman is, of course, that there are tons of actors who could replace him.  I found myself thinking the following during the movie:

What happened to the cast of Phantom of the Opera?  How come Gerard Butler wasn’t in Les Miserables?  What was he doing in that stupid movie about soccer?  Why did Emmy Rossum decide to stop singing and pursue a lukewarm acting career when she clearly has the voice of an angel?  Why are we forced to listen to Amanda Seyfried instead, when all I really want to do is remember her as The Dumb One from Mean Girls?

Hooper’s decision to go with an all- star cast of well- trained amateurs surely drew crowds to the box office, and he made many successful casting calls.   Amanda Seyfried was great.  So were all the strapping men who played Parisian revolutionaries.  Sacha Baron Coen and Helena Bonham Carter brought their Sondheim Sweeny Todd performances to almost identical roles in Les Miz.  Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine on Broadway, was the only original cast member and should have been paid twice what she probably was for her heart- wrenching portrayal of loyal, lovestruck Eponine (although what was up with her freakishly small waist?) Anne Hathaway did a hell of a job during her twenty minutes as tragic heroine Fantine, even though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscar nominations to anyone who loses half their body weight (Natalie Portman in Black Swan?  Rooney Mara in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?).  I thought Russel Crowe, who plays Valjean’s arch- nemesis Javert, did the best of the bunch.  Some criticized his unprofessional sound; Crowe’s background stems from experience singing with his rock band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts and, more recently, The Ordinary Fear of God.  I thought his raspy, rock- ready voice perfectly suited conflicted and harsh Javert.

Pretty much the only disappointment was Hugh Jackman, and he should have been able to carry the movie on those massive shoulders he worked so hard for.

All aspects of production received a lot of press this year.  Tom Hooper helmed Les Miz.  The British director won an Oscar for directing The King’s Speech, which also won Best Picture.  Hooper zones in on two main components of Les Miz:  the music and the emotion.  He cut out almost all dialogue, making movie Les Miz more of an opera.  That said, I felt that Les Mis cut corners in the wrong places.  Key lines of songs were removed, which upset many of the musical’s fans and made the audience understand some characters differently.  I think Hooper should have included all lines from all songs.  People know they’re buying a ticket for an excruciatingly long movie. If we could cut 5 minutes of Hugh Jackman swimming through diarrhea and put back some of the song’s lines, that would be fine with me.

Hooper succeeds in bringing the raw emotion and the plight of poor Parisians to the big screen.  The music?  Not so much.  The whole live- singing thing really detracted from my overall musical experience.  The actors didn’t sound live, they sounded like they were in agony.  Which, I guess was the point.

It seemed as though the whole film was trying to walk the line between fantasy and reality.  The film was very obviously shot on a soundstage, though the visuals expectedly surpassed those of any conceivable stage production.   On the one hand, director Tom Hooper wanted his actors recorded live because he thought it would add more emotion to the story.  On the other, how many people constantly sing about their feelings?  Reality isn’t choreographed, rehearsed, memorized, or set on a stage.  Musicals are.  I wanted a stage musical and I felt like a got a mashed- up attempt to grittify and de- Broadway a very powerful and emotionally driven, but still staged, musical. I definitely think they should have dubbed Jackman’s voice.  I feel like it’s a huge bummer that Hollywood is in a place where they expect people with the right “look” to sing and dance and act, when it’s so difficult to do all four.  I hold films to a higher standard than the actors themselves.

As a film, Les Miz could have benefited from a little more time in post- production.  Parts of it felt very thrown- together.  After seeing the movie, I researched the production schedule, and discovered that filming wrapped in June 2012 and the film was essentially finished by September.  It showed.  I thought the film needed a few more test screenings, more shot variety, and for the love of God, some voice- overs.  In contrast, Baz Luhrmann postponed the release of his grandiose adaptation of The Great Gatsby to work on the film’s soundtrack and special effects.  I wouldn’t blame Luhrmann for switching the film’s opening to May from Christmas Day if it meant escaping competition with Les Miz, but I found myself wishing Gatsby were the must- see extravaganza of the holiday season instead.


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