‘Les Miserables’ Review
Is it possible to hate something and yet, at the same time, recognize its greatness? This is a heavy philosophical question and one that I'd like to discuss with you. Anything to get these insufferably catchy tunes from 'Les Miserables' out of my head.
From the opening "Look Down" to the closing "Do You Hear The People Sing," Tom Hooper's maximalist adaptation of Claude-Michel Schonberg and company's musical (a ubiquitous source of feigned interest during all my summer camp courtships) makes no attempt to masquerade its musical theater roots. 99% of the dialogue is belted full-tilt to the cheap seats, both the showstopping numbers ("One More Day," "On My Own," "Who Am I?" and, ready the hankies now, "I Dreamed A Dream") and the endless moments of connective tissue between them. If you are anything like me, the "talk-singing" is enough to get you to fire a revolutionary's musket into your mouth. (Opera scholars call this recitative, I simply call it wretched.) You can't accuse 'Les Miserables' of wussing out.
'Les Miserables' is hardly a story unworthy of such dramatic interpretation. In case you don't know, it is based on Victor Hugo's novel chock a block with characters and situations readymade for near-Biblical analysis. Jean Valjean is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. Upon his release, he has the mark of Cain and can't find work. He attempts to steal from a church, but is granted forgiveness. He changes his name and devotes his life to doing good deeds. Always on his heels is the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), for whom Valjean has a peculiar respect. All of this comes at you in the first few minutes, and when Valjean makes his pledge for renewal he calls up to heaven and the camera pulls back on a held high note.
Oh, just thinking about it gives me chills. Even as I roll my eyes at its lack of subtlety. Why? Two words: "Hugh" Freaking "Jackman."
The world's handsomest man (offer me an alternative!) grabs ahold of Tom Hooper's wide-angle closeups and vibratos right into your heart. Jean Valjean is literature's great saint and it is the part Hugh Jackman was born to play. Because he is a good man. You can see this as he begs God that he spare the young revolutionary Marius, the very one mere moments earlier he wished wouldn't break his adopted daughter Cosette's heart. Or the way he pleads with Inspector Javert (the Sideshow Bob of 19th century French lit) for just a little more time to right fate's wrongs before he gladly turns himself in. Or how he lugs his highly symbolic candlesticks around for years. Yes, I know that Jackman is, in fact, and actor and he could, for all I know, light puppies on fire to get his kicks, but in the moment you will swear that you are in the presence of a pure, beautiful (and singing!) good. If you fail to find yourself moved as he meets his final reward you are, indeed, disconnected from humanity.
Alas, 'Les Miserables' is more than just the story of Jean Valjean and close-ups of Hugh Jackman's vibrating tonsils. In this version the ensuing love triangle between Cosette, Marius and Eponine (and Eponine's annoying parents) vie with endless scenes on the revolutionary barricades to see which can derail the drama most. The first hour of the film maintains a fresh, brisk pace. The remainder (and there's lots of it) lumber along. PS, if you didn't know, Anne Hathaway, who is, indeed, terrific, is in the movie for about 10 minutes.
For a guy who doesn't much like this sort of thing, I'll admit that the songs are highlights. The tunes have technical dazzle but are simple enough to become instantly hummable. (The old trick of repeating themes throughout doesn't hurt either.) By the end you'll by swaying along as characters you don't care about die for a battle you understand only in broad strokes. (Vive Le France, is about as deep as the politics get.) You'll find yourself singing for a minimum of two days.
If you are a fan of this show, you'll likely lose your mind at this film. If you merely like the story, there is an ineffable quality to Hugh Jackman's performance that just about makes suffering through the singing worth it. (No disrespect to Liam Neeson, but when Hugh Jackman saves a dying man from a falling cart knowing full well it could blow his cover, it does something to me.) 'Les Miserables' is a complete night out, not a movie to merely catch. It demands and is worthy of your attention and even if you kinda can't stand the form (and I put myself in this category) you deny its high notes at your own peril.
'Les Miserables' hits theaters on December 25.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.