The degree to which Les Misérables drops the ball as entertainment is massive, and more-than-a-little awe-inspiring – this might be the biggest fiasco from a mostly-untested filmmaker trying to prove his mettle since Michael Cimino unleashed Heaven’s Gate on the world.  I can’t say nothing works about the film because pockets of interest do show up periodically; as love-struck revolutionary Marius, Eddie Redmayne is immediately empathetic (and he’s probably the best singer in the entire cast), and Anne Hathaway’s turn as doomed prostitute Fantine deserves all the critical accolades shoveled her way these last few months.

That said, I don’t warm to my own vomit when I catch a glimpse of some food particle that was especially tasty going in.

From top to toe, the film’s bad decisions stem from director Tom Hooper attempting to exceed the boundaries of his very limited skill set.  Hooper is a decent television helmer with a Great Director’s ego; you hear him discuss his work, and it’s all, “Well, I was trying to take after Kubrick here, and then I tried to throw in a little Welles there,” but then the end result is no better crafted than your average episode of “Breaking Bad.”  Generally, a Tom Hooper Joint possesses a certain workmanlike efficiency – he favors the close-up, eschews establishing shots – pockmarked with moments of deliberate incomprehensibility.  Hooper loves to cant his angles, or shoot with a fish-eye lens to distort the space around characters, or have his actors look directly into the camera to “connect” with the viewer.  Rarely do these curlicues have any narrative or aesthetic justification, but in his television, Hooper’s style is questionable but harmless.  Much as I want a level to straighten out the ridiculous Dutch Angles in his “John Adams” miniseries and his “Longford” telefilm, the overall performances and writing are good enough to distract from Hooper’s stylistic excesses.

However, when his movies are on the big screen, Hooper’s faults take center stage.  You can’t ignore the weird camera shots and aggressive stylization – they overwhelm the senses.  I’m still processing his bungling of The King’s Speech, which would have been a fine little picture, were it not for all the handheld, wall-eyed camera feints or the shot setups that made stars Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth seem like they were slipping out of the frame and into oblivion.  Hooper won an Academy Award for that mess, but it’s Barry Lyndon compared to Les Misérables, which sees Hooper ditching any vestiges of formal moviemaking and dialing his mad impulses to eleven.

Every shot is a swooping, shaking, moving, dropping, expanding, juttering, zooming, sliding nightmare, with almost no static takes to orient the viewer.  It’s as if Hooper thought that the heaving melodrama of the musical needed an appropriately breathless visual style, whereas he might have been wise to ground the narrative with an approach less seizure inducing.  When every shot is THE BESTEST, none of them are.

Worst off, his desire to glut every frame of Les Misérables with visual flair – spatial coherence be dammed! – actually robs the film of spectacle and pomp.  I’ve seen the musical on-stage, and while I’ve never liked the music, it still remains one of the great sensory experiences of my life; everything is massive, with the sets crumbling in real time and a cast of hundreds.  Hooper, on the other hand, wants a freakishly stylized Les Misérables, but he wants a freakishly stylized gritty version.  He got a movie studio to give him millions of dollars to recreate France during the Revolution, and he hired thousands of extras and built gigantic sets, but we hardly get to see any of them.

The camera is in too tight, bobbing and weaving at street-level and denying viewers the totality of the production’s grand scope.  Rarely do you get many actors in the same shot, and the meticulously wrought buildings come at you in a jumble of doors and isolated parts.  One of the Blu-ray’s special features finds Hooper crowing about how he let his actors improvise the barricade set for the film’s revolutionary warfare setpiece, though we can’t tell if they’ve done a good job or not: all we see are a few chairs and an upturned desk or two.  Occasionally, Hooper will let some genuine spectacle in – I’m thinking of the opening shot of the convicts or the dramatic pullback from Jean Valjean over the French countryside – but he ladles on so much unconvincing CGI effects that we barely regard the frame widening.

Hooper’s next biggest mistake is his decision to have his actors sing live in-camera.  I get the instinct; I really do.  He wants to preserve the emotion of the moment in the songs, which you can’t do when you pre-record tracks.  Yet what Hooper gains in emotional authenticity, he loses in actual singing ability.  Redmayne comes off best – his “Empty Chairs” is the film’s auditory highpoint after “I Dreamed a Dream” – but you have to grade on a curve for the rest.  Hathaway is fine.  Amanda Seyfried’s voice is too thin.  Russell Crowe should not sing ever.  Repeat: Russell Crowe should not sing ever.  Poor Hugh Jackman comes off the worst.  His performance is actually quite good, but the strain on his voice during certain scenes makes him sound uncomfortably close to Kermit the Frog and renders much of his subtle physical work patently ridiculous.  In the end, it might not have hurt if Hooper’s actors had the benefit of auto-tuning and sonic editing – these tools might have made their performances all the more impactful.

And believe me, they need all the help they can get.  Hooper can normally count on his actors even when he’s operating at a loss, but he can’t even direct them to play to a consistent tone.  Besides his goofy singing voice, Jackman gives a subtle, heartfelt performance that is completely at odds with Redmayne’s movie-star pomp or Seyfried’s wide-eyed lovebird routine or Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s unbearable “comic” turns as the unscrupulous Thénardiers; the latter two act like they’ve stumbled out of a particularly bad Tim Burton movie.  Worst is Russell Crowe, whose utter singing inability pervades every aspect of his role.  Inspector Javert should be a force of nature, doggedly pursuing Valjean’s ex-convict past the boundaries of sanity or justice, but Crowe looks uncomfortable, as if he’s aware of the abominable sounds escaping his lips but is powerless to stop them.

I think Hathaway gets singled out because she makes Fantine matter despite the near-irrelevancy of the part.  Realistically, Fantine exists only so Cosette will exist, and a smarter adaptation could figure out how to keep Cosette while cutting Fantine.  But Hathaway creates a mini-opera of pain – in less than forty minutes, she brings Fantine from struggle to the grave – that transcends the film’s distracting theatrics and labored pacing.  It’s no surprise that her big “I Dreamed a Dream” number is the lone instance where Hooper doesn’t try to gussy up the material: all we need is Hathaway’s face as it disintegrates before us.

Les Misérables is the kind of movie that’s more enjoyable to talk about than it is to watch.  After the fact, I can laugh at Russell Crowe or Hooper’s catastrophic shooting style, but then I remember that initial viewing experience – the reams of tuneless songs, filling and cascading about the film’s bloated, distended 158-minute runtime – and something inside me shudders.  At the end of the day, Les Misérables isn’t any fun, and for an entertainment, there’s no worse sin.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography is muddy and often ugly to look at, but there’re no digital sourcing issues with Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/UV combo pack.  It’s clear and sharp, even if the movie isn’t.  The Blu-ray also has a robust 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which delineates through the different sonic challenges with ease and grace.

Features are brief in number but great in quality.  I don’t care for Tom Hooper (if that wasn’t obvious), but his audio commentary is generally pretty solid – it’s a detailed examination of the film’s making.  Even better is the hour-long “Les Misérables: A Revolutionary Approach,” a multi-part documentary that avoids many overlaps with Hooper’s commentary.  Finally, we get “The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables,” which takes a look at the book version.

I hear the book is pretty good.  Too bad the movie isn’t.  Even though I don’t care for musicals, I can’t see anyone flipping for this picture: it’s an albatross of excess.

Les Misérables streets on March 22nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.


Note: Seeing as how Les Misérables is a Universal Studios release, I thought I’d use this space to announce the upcoming release of Universal’s Side Effects Blu-ray.  I think I liked Side Effects about as much as I hated Les Misérables; it’s a twisty, effortlessly cool drama from Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic).  The film starts out as a character study, detailing the psychological travails of one Emily Taylor (the great Rooney Mara), a young woman trying to balance the homecoming of her recently incarcerated husband (Channing Tatum) with her increasingly frightening mental instabilities.  There a little blood, a lot of sex, and more than that I will not say, except that Side Effects finds Soderbergh going genre-hopping with as much aplomb as Quentin Tarantino, blending psychological drama, social exposé, Hitchcockian thriller, erotic thriller, and corporate satire into a distinctly Soderberghian cocktail.  He has been on a hell of a tear – over the last five years, Soderbergh has amassed a small body of work that most directors would covet, starting with 2008’s neglected masterpiece Ché and then moving onto And Everything Is Going Fine, The Informant!, Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike – and if Side Effects is, as he has warned, his final theatrical feature, then what a way to go.  Highly, highly recommended.

The film makes its Blu-ray debut on May 21st in a stacked Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  Pretty please, with sugar on top: PRE-ORDER IT FROM AMAZON.

Culture Movie Review: Watching LES MISERABLES, With a Quick Word on SIDE EFFECTS