Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
LES MISÉRABLES (2012)
Ugh, full disclosure, this is the one musical on my entire list that I’ve been looking forward to the least. I didn’t even really know anything about the plot, but 158 minutes of French history and misery and Russell Crowe singing? Eh. Let’s see what this is.
Hmm. So Les Misérables starts out pretty strong. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) swipes some bread and serves a nineteen-year sentence. Released on parole and desperate, he’s busted for stealing silver from a church, but a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) tells the authorities that it was a gift and lets him have it to start a new life as long as he can remain a moral man. This act of kindness kicks off Valjean’s struggles to always do the right thing as he runs away and assumes a new identity. So far, I am on board.
And on beard.
But what’s this?! Police chief Javert (Russell Crowe) thinks he recognizes Valjean in hiding as the mayor of a quiet French village? A-haaaaaaa! Javert tries to report Valjean and is told they’ve already caught him. What?! An innocent man shall be doomed for Valjean’s crimes?! Well, looks like he got away with it—NO! The newly principled Valjean 2.0 could not allow such a tragedy! Whatever shall he do?! Time to flee from Javert and set things right!
And so begins a thrilling game of French-cat-and-French-mouse!
But… after all that… there’s still a full-length movie. This sucker is looong, and too many new characters show up, and a bunch of rushed side plots happen, and then even Valjean and Javert’s rivalry stops being interesting. Especially when it seems like they keep ending up in the same room a dozen times and all they do is sing at each other.
It has a very “James Bond chillin’ with the villain” vibe.
But, again, with singing.
I dunno, I almost can’t even pinpoint how it suddenly clicks over to a grandiose epic of sheer boredom, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Peter Jackson. Maybe they glossed over too much plot adapting it from stage to screen. I wish there was a version I could read without any songs in it…
Straight up, Hugh Jackman fucking brings it on both the acting and singing fronts. His Valjean is tortured and determined and you see it on his face and hear it in his voice. Even at its most dull moments, Jackman completely carries the movie. I daresay I might recommend it for his performance alone.
Almost. Brew up some coffee first.
Anne Hathaway, though her role as Fantine is smaller, is also on her A-game. Her singing might be lacking oomph just a smidge, but when she cries, I can feel it in my soul.
Oh, honey, do you need a ride somewhere?
*sigh* And then there’s Russell Crowe as Javert, who honestly feels like a walking nap. I dunno, maybe he was going for “cold” or “distant” or “dead,” but isn’t there some, like, inner turmoil we should see on his face? And his singing doesn’t help either; at best he’s maybe doing an impression of David Bowie yawning. Is it because he’s used to rock vocals from his time in that band with a shitty name? Or does he just not care? Either way, he really sticks out from all the people trying to sound, you know, good.
Thinkin’ ’bout his paycheck.
Let’s see, and there’s also—wait, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen AGAIN? Didn’t I just get done with them in that barber movie? Well, they’re honestly the first big moment of downfall in Les Misérables. Everything up to their arrival has been fairly serious and realistic, and then suddenly they bust in like Tim Burton clowns and goof the whole thing up. Maybe that’s how their characters are in the stage version, I don’t know, but I don’t like them and I don’t like these performances and, holy hell, did they just drag the costume designer over from Sweeney and have Burton guest-direct their scenes?
Don’t cartoons usually play before movies, not in the middle?
There are many more characters in the film, but the last I’ll mention is Eddie Redmayne, just because I want to say that his singing, while impressive, sounds like a cross between Chevy Chase in ¡Three Amigos! and Marvin the Martian.
And he looks like this while he does it.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
I took one look at the song listing on Wikipedia and said, “Oh, fuck this noise.” There are over fifty songs, you guys. Fifty. There’s no way I’m going to talk about each one individually. There’s no way I’m even going to talk about a quarter of them. To be honest, I’m so overwhelmed, I barely think I have the strength to do… three?
Anyway, the tunes in Les Mis struck me in a very particular way: the lyrics were pretty good with occasional moments of brilliance, but the music is epic. Not “killer party, bro” epic, I mean, like, wow. I’d call it awesome if that word hadn’t lost all its impact as well. This is big, booming, dramatic music, about the closest thing I’ve seen to an opera this year. But it only booms when it needs to; in many scenes, it’s quietly bubbling underneath lyrics that sound more like dialogue with odd timing and inflection than actual singing. The shifts between softness and epicism make it feel like there are only a dozen or so songs, even though everyone is singing all the time forever. This can get irritating at times.
“We never just talk any more!”
If there’s one song that shook me to my core, it’s “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” in which Valjean paces around a church after the bishop instructs him to live as a decent man from now on. It’s full of long takes, Hugh Jackman breaking down in front of the camera, and devastatingly emotional music. This is the song that made me say, “Okay, movie, I’m sold, whaddya got?”
Too bad about the rest of it…
Also a powerful punch in the gut is Anne Hathaway’s heartbreaking performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which I now know takes place immediately after getting shagged for money, making it a baffling song choice for some poppy European family-friendly singing competition. Anne looks like she’s going to burst with misery and tears and I just can’t take all the sadness, I need a minute.
No, don’t look me in the eyes! I’m gonna lose it!
Oh, hey, “Master of the House.” I heard that on Seinfeld once. Eh. It sets up Sacha Baron Cohen’s character as a swindler, but the wackiness seems really out of place in this movie. It’s Les Misérables, not Les Goofy Side Characters.
Mommy, there’s screwy comic relief under my bed!
And maybe it’s just because it’s the song in the DVD menu that got me a little pumped to watch it, but the rallying cry “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is pretty badass. It starts out as a quiet hum and keeps building and building and building until TOO LATE, THE REVOLUTION IS HERE, MOTHAFUCKA.
The revolution will not be televised!
(Because television hasn’t been invented yet.)
Wow. Are those really the only songs I remember? I think Russell Crowe sings on a roof?
- Wait a minute, why did I watch Frozen before Les Misérables when it came out almost a year earlier? Uh, oops. Because I was having a bad week and figured Frozen would make me… less miserable? Ha. Whatever, ain’t nothin’ in the rules says I can’t watch these musicals in whatever order I damn well please, so there.
- This is the second musical I’ve seen in which an 1800s Sacha Baron Cohen puts pee in a bottle and tries to get somebody to drink it. The first is Sweeney Todd. What a very specific thing!
Somebody has a fetish!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I know I’m supposed to bitch about a shitty lyric real quick and then move on, but I’ve got to explain myself this week. First off, nothing in Les Misérables struck me as a terrible line. Loads of mediocre ones, sure, but nothing worth a groan. However, there was one moment that made me burst out laughing. On paper, it’s isn’t that funny. At all, really. But in the song “Who Am I?” our hero ponders whether or not he should come out of hiding and confess to Javert that he is Jean Valjean to save an innocent man’s life. After much dramatic build-up to his decision, during which I expected him to shout, “I am a moral man!” or “I always do what is right!” or “I am not without a soul!” he instead just answers the question of “Who am I?” quite literally with his own name, and what should have been an intense moment hit me right between the eyes as a bit of a farty “no shit, Sherlock” revelation…
“Who am I? Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean.”
There are times I really hate that I don’t have the dough to check out the stage versions of every musical film I review, and this is one of them. I feel like there’s good stuff in Les Misérables… strong performances, powerful music, bitter rivals with compelling backgrounds, revolution, pee-drinking… but it all stops being interesting the longer it goes on and the more characters it adds, and I’m going to guess it’s from getting ultra-condensed in the adaptation process. (Book to stage and then stage to screen? Rough.) Then again, this is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have ever sought out if it hadn’t been a movie, so thanks for making this… sort of good film, I guess. How long is the novel? Oh, yikes, never mind.