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Movie review: "Les Miserables" is hit-and-miss

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(158 minutes; rated PG-13 for violence, adult situations).

(6 out of 10 stars)

"All this over a loaf of bread."

There's much ado about a 1,500 page, 19th century French novel that spawned the most award-winning show in musical theater history. Now, some 27 years later, it has finally been turned into a major motion picture.

There is good reason for all this excitement. "Les Miserables" (the musical) was a seminal event for that art form. It incontrovertibly  changed how Broadway and the West End — for good and for bad — produces their shows. 

One step further, Hollywood's history of adapting stage-to-screen musicals has always been a mixed bag. For every "Chicago" or "My Fair Lady" (Best Picture awards in 2002 and 1964, respectively) there has been "A Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."  So, it isn't much of a stretch to say that those who eagerly awaited this movie wondered if it would get critical acclaim or end up a dog.

So, what's the verdict? 

Meh.

Fundamentally, while there were examples of brilliance as the movie stayed true to the stage version, the mistakes made within the musical were willingly brought forward into this medium. Even more mind-blowing, brand-new gaffes were created and featured. And much like the plot of "Les Miserables" it was entirely tragic.

To their credit, the producers amassed a rather remarkable stable of talent for this movie. To the actors' commendation, they were all exceptionally good given how they poorly they were directed and staged.

Hugh Jackman, who earned his chops on the Great White Way, stars as Jean Valjean, around whom the plot revolves. Jackman has the vocal ability, physicality, and acting wherewithal to excel in this role and he certainly will earn a Best Actor nomination. His final scene in the movie left few dry eyes in the theater.

The standout, however, was Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine. The beautiful Hathaway shed 25 pounds and willingly cut her hair on screen for the part.  She sung a show-stopper of a song, "I Dreamed A Dream," that made me want to stand and applaud and she most readily gets my vote (like I have one) for Best Actress — even though she has about 30 minutes of screen time.

But even Jackman and Hathaway can't save this movie from the director. The only explanation is that he is drunk with ego off his accolades from "The King's Speech."

Director Tom Hooper has more than enough talent to have knocked this film out of the park. It sat there like a big hanging curveball for him and, unfortunately for us, he swung right through it.

In my opinion he made two critical mistakes from the get-go. 

First, he decided to film the vocals "live," meaning he let the actors sing on film instead of lip-syncing from a perfected studio-recorded session. Where it worked with some actors and scenes (especially Hathaway) it worked well. Most of the time, however, it fell flat and became even distracting for those actors who couldn't pull it off or  those actors who had songs where they just could not reach that one note (read: Jackman). Moreover, the orchestration didn't mix well at all with the vocals, nor did Hooper choose venues/sets that were acoustically superior.

Second, for some unexplained reason, he filmed most of this movie with incredibly close-up shots — and I'm not exaggerating. Multi-actor scenes were also compact and the camera for the solo songs were so near to the actor that the depth of field was blurred and you saw every blemish, line, and crooked tooth. When you give the actors realistic looking 19th century teeth, it quickly becomes nauseating. 

Also, when, for the love of all that is holy, will this trend of bouncy, hand-held, quick and sweeping turns leave the movies? Bring your motion-sickness pills, those of you with weak stomachs.

In addition, this film is set in early 19th century France. Aside from one scene where Javert sings in front of the Cathedral at Notre Dame, the opportunity to see huge, sweeping shots of Paris in 1832 with magnificent, breath-taking beauty was lost instead to Hugh Jackman's nose hair.

I'm certain Hooper made a few enemies of his set designers and builders.

Even more sad was the poor interpretation of the characters. The choices of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers were inspired and for the most part they played brilliantly off each other. But "Master of the House" is a light-hearted, comic song provided, I am certain, to break the heavy drama of the show. Thénardier should revel and rejoice in his thievery and treachery, but Cohen plays him like Norman Bates on acid. Why does Cohen have a French accent when everyone else has an English one? (Why do all these Parisians have English accents?)

Then Hooper took a rather talented Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, and had him give the most disjointed performance I've ever witnessed in film. Redmayne gave perhaps the highlight of the film with his rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" (yes, I'm considering Hathaway, too), yet when Samantha Barks is dying in his arms he seems emotionless and detached as she professes her lifelong love for him.

By the way, Barks as Èpinone, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Colm Wilkinson (the original Broadway Valjean) as the Bishop are worth the price of the ticket.

Finally, I have to say I am not on board with the Russell Crowe bashing. There is a good reason this man owns an Oscar and this was the best portrayal of Javert I have seen. And while he does not have a pretty singing voice, his notes were powerful and on key. This, coupled with the fact his character is a rather ugly one makes Crowe's performance work very well.

All in all, "Les Miserables" was a hit-and-miss movie that mirrored its tragic storyline. It could have been so much more.

I give it 6 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!