With Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen. Written by William Nicholson. Directed by Tom Hooper. Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. 157 minutes.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. If you loved the Broadway hit “Les Misérables” – if you hum the songs because you think it has a beautiful score – you’re going to have a great time at this movie version. It’s the entire show (with one additional song for Oscar bait since pre-existing music isn’t eligible for “best song”) and it’s got a star-studded cast. For two and a half hours you’ll be immersed in a world that you love and you’ll be entranced.
In that sense, LES MISÉRABLES is just like “The Hobbit.” It’s a big lumbering mess where you feel every minute of the excessive running time. It may succeed commercially because of the already-existing fan base which has been eager for years to see it on the big screen. However, that doesn’t make it a good movie, nor does it seem likely that it will win over new legions of fans not already convinced of the brilliance of the show.
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, which has been adapted in non-musical form many times, its focus is on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a poor man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, who is subsequently paroled but flees from police supervision. Under another name, he becomes a big success and community benefactor, but the obsessed Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) refuses to give up bringing him to what Javert considers “justice.”
In straight dramatic terms, this can be powerful stuff. A 1935 Hollywood version has Charles Laughton as Javert, blind to the insanity of his pursuit. A beautiful 1995 French version moves the action to the 20th century and plays off the novel and various film versions with screen legend Jean-Paul Belmondo in the Valjean role. Both are well worth seeing because they capture at least some aspects of the novel.
This movie musical, though, flattens it all out to the point that you can be forgiven if you lost track of the story. As Javert, the chief thing you notice about Russell Crowe is that he should never again be allowed to appear in a musical. None of the principals fare well, although Anne Hathaway has been getting some notice as Fantine, a character who is both tragic and accorded an early exit. Part of the problem is the ham-fisted direction by Tom Hooper which consists mostly of close-ups of the actors as they shriek their songs into the camera.
For those who, like this reviewer, are fans of the musical theater, it is painful. (Full disclosure: this critic’s pantheon includes Gershwin, Loesser, and – of course – the great Stephen Sondheim.) With the exception of the comical novelty number “Master Of The House,” performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the thieving Thénardiers, the songs all sound alike. Fans of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, perpetrators of this musical crime, will no doubt be shocked at such an accusation, attuned as they are to the allegedly distinctive sounds of the bland score. However, like their other stage hit “Miss Saigon,” it is as if it was scored by the yard rather than specially crafted for each musical moment.
It’s truly amazing just how not-engaging the proceedings are. Jackman, who should be at the core holding it all together, is a cipher. Crowe is impossibly bad. Hathaway gets to look pathetic. And Amanda Seyfried, as the adult version of Fantine’s daughter Cosette, is only marginally better than her abominable turn in “Mamma Mia!” As for the crucial events of French history against which these personal stories take place, it is unlikely anyone not already fluent in early 19th century French politics will be able to follow what’s going on from what’s on screen.
In short, “Les Misérables” is one of the most miserable blockbusters of the year.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.