In the early 1990s, I accepted an invitation from a friend to go see the national touring company of “Les Misérables,” even though it was being mounted at Dallas’ Music Hall at Fair Park (before its eventual renovation, the venue was acoustically iffy at best) and despite my trepidation over the then-popular “Miserable Cats of the Opera” mega-musicals.
And while the show is not without its gimmickry and manipulation, I found it genuinely moving and exhilarating, with the showstopping 11 o'clock number “Bring Him Home” (which had been played to death in the constant TV ads for the production) giving me chills.
I mention this only to fend off complaints that I have no soul or no affinity for the material at hand, because it is my duty to inform you that “Les Misérables,” the movie, is a catastrophe of epic proportions.
Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) piles one terrible decision upon another, with the result being a movie so overbearingly maudlin and distorted that it’s one of 2012’s most excruciating film experiences.
Mistake number one comes in the way he shoots what’s happening -- it’s one thing to give us singing prisoners and gendarmes and prostitutes and soldiers and revolutionaries with the accommodating distance of the stage, but to have these same entities with the camera going right up their nose just accentuates the bizarre counter-intuitiveness of having these characters singing virtually every word of dialogue.
(There are, in fact, three basic camera positions in the film: Too Close, Rapid-Fire Figure 8 Around the Action, and Helicopter View of 19th Century Paris.)
By now, you know the tale: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, is paroled from his sentence of hard labor, even though brutal prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced that Valjean will inevitably return to crime. The desperate Valjean steals from a kindly priest, and when the priest tells the authorities the silver had been a gift, the newly redeemed Valjean attempts to rebuild his life.
Under a new identity, he becomes a mayor and the owner of a rosary factory, but a visit by an unsuspecting Javert distracts Valjean while poor Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired under false pretenses. Too late to save the woman, who turns to prostitution and hair-selling to support her daughter, Valjean vows to raise the child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, then Amanda Seyfried) as his own.
And then there’s the second French revolution, and Cosette falls in love with rich student/slumming revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Javert still hovers in the background, obsessed with bringing Valjean to what the officer believes is justice. One of the nefarious powers of “Les Misérables” the movie is its ability to reduce Victor Hugo’s novel, considered one of the great achievements in world literature, to a hacky melodrama that even a young D.W. Griffith might have found overly precious.
Oh, the performances: Jackman and Hathaway are both playing to the back balcony, rather than to the camera lens that’s just inches away. Jackman over-articulates, over-gesticulates and pretty much over-everythings. Worse still are those moments where, rather than singing all his dialogue, he has to transition from speech to song within the same line. (“We’re leaving now, PACK YOUR THIIIIIIINGS!”) Even his “Bring Him Home” paled next to the version performed by that actor who came to Dallas 20 years ago, raising nary a hair on the back of my neck.
Hathaway, meanwhile, takes every opportunity to suck all the oxygen out of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the number that is this show’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Earlier in the film, Fantine sells some of her back teeth to a shady dentist who promises to leave her “enough to bite.” Clearly, he also left her enough to gnash. It’s a ghastly, eyelid-fluttering, self-serving, sympathy-begging performance; Oscar voters are guaranteed to eat it up.
And then there’s poor Russell Crowe, who’s had success as a vocalist with his bands 30 Odd Foot of Grunts and the Ordinary Fear of God, but singing in a bar band and belting quasi-operatic Broadway songs are two very different things. He’s giving it his all but falling short throughout; you can tell from the strain that he’s singing on his tippytoes.
The one performer who stands out is Sasha Baron Cohen, who cuts through the rest of the film’s noble masochism with the grungily cynical “Master of the House.” (Helena Bonham Carter is lazily cast as the innkeeper’s shrewish wife.) But even Baron Cohen wears a bit thin by the fourth reprise or so.
Admittedly, I sat in the screening room surrounded by people who were sniffling if not outright bawling, so this movie’s clearly working for someone. And to some extent, I empathize: I’m always left a soppy wreck by Claude Lelouch’s 1995 version, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo plays both Valjean and a truck driver transporting Jews out of France during World War II.
For me, though, this was the kind of movie where I started rooting for the French soldiers only because every time they shot someone, that meant one less singer on screen.