Now, it must be said that I'm not a fan of musicals, either on the stage or on screen. So you may want to interpret this review with that knowledge. When The Sound of Music comes onto the tube annually, it is almost physically painful for me to watch it. Recent efforts to tolerate the Broadway performances of Wicked and Beauty & the Beast performed by excellent touring companies at local stage theaters caused a similar reaction in me.
But there are exceptions to this rule. I was entertained greatly by The Lion King, enough to see the stage play twice; and have been pleased by other stage performances over the years—Camelot, Chorus Line, Cabaret, come to mind. On the screen, I thought Chicago was a lot of fun, and Moulin Rouge was inventive enough that I actually own a Blu-ray copy. I thought that Rock of Ages was old- fashioned silly fun, much like Bye, Bye Birdie was in its day, and I admired it for its lack of pretentious self-indulgence.
I had some hopes the Les Miserables might fall into the latter category of tolerable musicals, as the film trailers seemed interesting, and I have some admiration for both Hugh Jackman's range as an action-hero/song-and-dance performer, and young Ann Hathaway's talent. Having never seen a live staging of the play, I attended the film without a lot of preconceived opinions, though I was aware that the Broadway stage play tends to be either adored or loathed.
(As the classic Victor Hugo novel was an all-time favorite for me, after first reading it nearly 40 years ago, the whole idea of turning it into a musical always struck me as rather bizarre. The Nazi gas chambers and the crucifixion of Jesus seem just about as well suited for musical dramatization. I did acknowledge that the potential for Phantom of the Opera silliness was certainly inherent in this play.)
To make a long story short, Les Miz will not enter that short list of good musicals for me. Too long, amateurish lyrics on the bulk of the filler songs, too few really good showcase numbers, a silly alteration of a classic story, all add up to a fairly excruciating Christmas afternoon matinee.
To start with, the film attempted to follow the stage drama too closely, I think, and as a result did not make use of the advantages that film as a medium—to tell story through images rather than words, to imply time symbolically rather than literally, etc. This was the thing the Moulin Rouge and Chicago did so well.
I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that the producers of the film insisted on making the love story the main element of the tale. It was undoubtedly necessary to ensure commercial success, but it also doomed the film artistically.
Those who have read the novel understand that this light love story was not really a central element of the novel. The Victor Hugo novel I so admire is really mostly about the redemptive power of correct moral choices in circumstances of pain and suffering, a message was sadly diluted by the the dreamy-eyed characters batting their lashes at one another throughout this film adaption.
A peripheral love story is present in the novel, but is quite tangential to the interior moral dilemma within the conflict between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. The novel works on both a psychological level as an examination of personal redemption, and as a sociological comment on class warfare, but traditional romance isn't really a part of it at all. So naturally, the geniuses of American musical theater thought it made great sense to change one of the 10 greatest novels of all time for the benefit of the Entertainment Tonight crowd.
(And if you are going to do something so stupid, I really, really, don't understand why there can't be more genuine poetry in the text of these musicals. Are there really so few talented writers penning for the musical stage these days? Such text drivel could never get published in obscure academic literary magazines, and it's impossible to understand how big-budget broadway theater can be written so much more poorly than the average Aaron Sorkin television drama.)
In a song near the end of the film (though not close enough to the end), a character speaks of his "pain that will never end.) I turned to my wife and whispered "Much like this movie," which elicited chuckles from nearby patrons.
Les Miserable could have been great. Wasn't very good. Geezer quotient: 60/100.
Django Unchained awaits for the New Year's movie adventure.