I suppose that we like the middlebrow until it aspires to become something higher than that, and then if it fails, teeth gnash and the claws come out. Hence the critics who are taking apart Les Miserables, by no means the best movie of the year, but a handsome piece of star-studded entertainment that continues to warm audiences.
Seriously, my Facebook friends love this movie, although they didn’t like Russell Crowe’s voice; that’s the closest thing to a consensus criticism between fuddy-duddys who write for the New Yorker and smart people in Memphis who only go see about three or four movies a year. My wife and I liked it. I liked the Broadway version and have seen it three times. The stage show, a mix of inventive minimalism, Christian redemption, and songs that rise without pretense toward the rafters . . . you’re going to like it or you’re not going to like it. Les Miserables post 1987 isn’t great art and it’s not even pop art, but it’s the kind of spectacle that demands its right to exist apologetically even as its sure the peanut gallery is going to make fun of its earnestness.
But Walter Chaw and David Denby hated it. Hated it! Denby, the man who is mostly responsible for making us think Crash was a good film, probably gave a raspberry to all the crying fellow movie- goers and then chastised them for their choice of scarf. As his amazingly condescending title “There’s Still Hope for People Who Like Les Mis” indicates, the problem lies more with the movie itself:
Didn’t any of my neighbors notice how absurdly gloomy and dolorous the story was? How the dominant blue-gray coloring was like a pall hanging over the material? How the absence of dancing concentrated all the audience’s pleasure on the threadbare songs? How tiresome a reverse fashion show the movie provided in rags, carbuncles, gimpy legs, and bad teeth? How awkward the staging was? How strange to have actors singing right into the camera, a normally benign recording instrument, which seems, in scene after scene, bent on performing a tonsillectomy?
Of course they didn’t. They were too busy being moved by this piece of crap that you saw right through! They found it redemptive and uplifting, while you kept thinking about how much better THE STAR IS BORN is. One of Denby’s favorite movies of 2011 was the dreadfully conventional Clint Eastwood-directed biopic J.Edgar, a movie that played fast and loose with the facts and still managed to be “gloomy and dolorous” about one of the most interesting and controversial people of the 20th century. But what jumped out with Les Mis at Denby was the thought that, heavens to Betsy, people actually like this garbage! The solution is an education in musical and opera by David Denby: see The Band Wagon, obvs, a movie about a the rise and fall of a musical comedy star that is TOTALLY comparable to the spectacle of Les Mis. Denby’s book is called Do The Movies Have a Future, and while I haven’t read it, this profile indicates that it’s in character with the misleadingly titled “There’s Still Hope . . .” (because all signs point to no): Lawrence of Arabia won’t get made because audiences prefer the moral murkiness of Christopher Nolan.
I like Walter Chaw a lot better than Denby. The guy can turn a phrase, and when he likes a movie he gives you more reasons to like it. But like Denby, his review of Les Mis points out things that are problems that aren’t really problems. He accuses director Tom Hooper of having “fanatical vision” when the director sticks so strictly to the stage musical that its almost as though he’s afraid of the backlash; he also has a “myopic hemiagnosia,” which is what I think one of my parents’ dogs got when he chewed his food too fast despite our stern instructions for him to slow down. And like Denby, he’s frustrated that people like this so much. Don’t they see what a crime it is that you would introduce characters after the 2nd act transition? Syd Field would never let you get away with that junk! The film doesn’t “understand itself as an artifact,” which is a wonderfully curt way to say that it fails without saying why it fails. I suppose that Chaw would have liked some filmmaker to come along and undercut the seriousness and high drama, but that’s what people like about it and this is a document that captivates audiences who see it first time twenty-five years after it was written. And I agree that the love triangle is the least interesting aspect, and produces mostly the least interesting moments, of the musical, but it also allows for newcomer Samantha Barks to belt out the transcendent “On My Own” and steal the second half of the show. But Chaw’s last line is what’s most instructive for our purposes:
Les Misérables is doomed to polarize the half that loved it before they saw it and the half dragged there that spent the last few hours of it surreptitiously checking the time. Just like the good old days.
I think the first part of the first sentence needs to be rewritten for clarity, but the “half dragged there” includes critics I think, who would rather not even watch the movies that people shouldn’t like but do anyway.
Here’s the briefest review possible that I won’t really qualify, because it want to open it to a larger conversation. I thought Russell Crowe was fine, although for some of his numbers I wish they had gone all Lina Lamont on him. The way he alternately cowers and tries to dominate Valjean is what makes Javert such a suicidal conundrum: he believes in a rigid old testament morality even though he’s always troubled by how much wiggle room there actually is. The guy playing Marius has a nice voice, but it seems like he should be getting ready for JV soccer practice, not leading a student rebellion. I wish it wasn’t raining when “On My Own” happened, because we already get that Eponine is realizing what she’s excluded from, and she would express this perfectly well with dry hair and without a wind machine. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are wonderful performers, and they’re even shadier than your average stage Thenadiers even if they can’t dance as well. Hooper’s lack of an auteur’s vision, which Chaw seems to at once locate and reject (you can’t do that; it’s either there or it’s not), is a smart choice. As Roger Ebert said about Titanic, “you don’t choose the most expensive film ever made as your opportunity to reinvent the wheel.” Similarly, you don’t take something as iconic and enduring as Les Mis in its first ever film adaptation and make it a parallel with Occupy Wall Street or something. Hooper’s direction is admirable because you always know what’s going on even when he’s dealing with a pretty big box of tinkertoys, which leads to diagnosis of a severe lack of vision. But overall I found the movie to be an uncomplicated spectacle that will be damningly overrated in what has been a resurgent film year, just like every award winner since 2007. That it’s “handsome” and “moving” which shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, but it also indicates that Les Mis is not the greatest use of the cinema to date. Watching Les Mis on stage, and you get caught up in the pitiful and often unrealistic longings of the poor yet hopeful, and you’re delighted when it all comes together. The movie doesn’t pull that off as well, but we’re not really talking about movie musicals being better their original Broadway runs. It’s not as good a movie, for instance, as either Skyfall or Your Sister’s Sister, which are probably my two favorite films of the year. But it’s certainly not worthy of the derision it’s been getting.
If anything, I had the biggest issue with Jackman as Valjean. If I’d never seen the musical live, I probably would have been fine with him. But every time I’ve seen it, Valjean is a burly guy who threatens to the break the stage lights with his voice. When I was in high school, my parents and I went to see it on Broadway. At first we were disappointed, because Craig Schulman – perhaps the most best Valjean ever – was out for the evening. Instead, a guy named Rob Evan played him. After two minutes, I wasn’t disappointed anymore. I don’t think Jackman is that magnetic or physically empowering to play the part. While I’ve only seen him in recordings, I imagine he’s better at the kind of playfulness of something like Oklahoma where he gets to wink a lot. Jackman has always been more Roger Moore than Sean Connery: even as Wolverine, he’s less intense than he is cocky, more charismatic than vulnerable. As such, he doesn’t really the capture the way Valjean’s idealism and integrity are part of his charisma. Onstage, when Valjean is dressed as the mayor or as a commoner, he always seems like he’s about to burst of that costume, reminding us of his background. Jackman seems more comfortable in the costumes.
More than likely, as in the case with the startling success of Chicago, we’ll get some mediocre adaptations of beloved shows (Phantom, Rent, and The Producers all came out at roughly the same time). But I hope we also get something like Dreamgirls, which was curiously underrated even though everyone in it was awesome. I agree with Denby on one point: this movie should push its audiences to go see old musicals. They’re wonderful. If you’ve never seen Singing in the Rain, I envy the experience you’re going to have. Same with something trivial yet gleefully fun like Daddy Long Legs. But I don’t think the success of Les Mis means we all have to go to a high culture version of Ned Flanders’ re-neducation program.
This may be something I’ll get to later, but I’d like to look at this response in connection with discourse surrounding the New York Times’ savage takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square feedbag. It’s of a piece with my earlier post about Girls. Whatever the case, I’m obsessed with critics: not so much proving them wrong, but wondering why they do what they do at all.
 2008: Slumdog Millionaire. 2009: The Hurt Locker. 2010: The King’s Speech. 2011: The Artist. Each of these are fine movies that were overcelebrated to the point that future audiences will feel like me when I watch something like Out of Africa: “really! This was the best movie of the year?! What about ________?”