'Les Miserables', a misérable musical version of Victor Hugo's classic story

December 25, 2012 

The urge for wordplay is irresistible. I didn’t expect much from the musical Les Miserables but it turns out to be a less miserable film experience than expected.

But it’s still miserable.

Most of you know the plot. Jean Valjean does 19-years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. When he is released, Valjean can’t find work. In French society of the 1800s, ex-cons are ostracized. Shunned and rejected, Valjean grows desperate. He finds shelter in a church and to assure future survival, he steals the church’s silver. Caught and faced with another long prison sentence, the authorities drag Valjean before the priest.

To Valjean’s surprise, the priest tells the police he had permission to take the treasure and points out that Valjean forgot two, even more valuable candle sticks.

The act of grace changes Valjean forever.

He skips parole, changes his name and becomes a successful and rich businessman. Even though he devotes his life to helping others, Inspector Javert, a guard who knew him in prison, suspects he’s who he is, and wants to return Valjean to prison for violating his parole.

In Javert’s eyes, once a criminal and con, always a criminal and con. They never, ever change.

Before Javert interjects himself into Valjean’s life, the man befriends Fantine. When she dies, he promises to raise her daughter as his own. And he does.

First the performances. Hugh Jackman is Valjean and Russell Crowe does the relentless Javert. Jackman can sing. Crowe can’t. Anne Hathaway — who does Fantine — is a great singer. Amanda Seyfried doing daughter Cosette can’t. The best singer in the cast is My Week with Marilyn’s Eddie Redmayne.

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are decent singers and provide the film’s comedy relief. Les Miserables definitely needs some.

Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel is one of the best books ever written. It is deep, insightful and powerful. The movie — however — is not. While the focus is the story, this version of Hugo’s novel is a popular opera from the 1980s.

Ignore the several Golden Globe nominations. It’s a musical in the category of comedy or musicals. Since not that many are produced, the nominations are a no brainer. The reality is this: operas don’t make good movies.

Seeing an opera on stage is different than experiencing it in a movie. The stage offers intimacy. The live setting produces a mood that is enhanced by set changes and actors in the same room. Live performances connect the material to the audience in ways a movie cannot.

Many of the film’s flaws are in the attempt to make one special and unique form of entertainment fit another. However, a bunch of the film’s problems lie with director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). He has no clue how to do this movie. To give the plot power, Hooper does dozens of uncomfortable, and too close, close-up shots of the actors. At times he lets the camera wander and ends up cutting off the heads of his actors.

You’ll think this is the theater screen masking. It is not. Hooper does this deliberately and instead of effective, it’s irritating.

Then there is the music and the movie’s length. The score brings the vocals so far to the front that the instruments driving it cannot be heard. The vocals and the music end up in a flat monotone.

The story of Jean Valjean and his desperate search for redemption and forgiveness is timeless. Sitting through 157 tuneless minutes of Valjean’s classic story gives timeless a new definition.

At least at the opera you’re given an intermission.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Director: Tom Hooper

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Saron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne

Mr. Movie rating: 2 1/2 stars

Rated PG-13 for mature themes. It’s playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.

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