If I were called upon to write a 140-character assessment of Tom Hooper’s weeperific musical extravaganza “Les Misérables,” I’d just laugh. Because I could cover it in fewer than 50: Call me Bessie, ’cos I’ve been thoroughly milked.
“Les Misérables” is a sprawling, splashy musical shellacked with appropriate levels of grimy grandeur. It’s designed to make us feel every emotion fortissimo – because pianissimo is so 1862.
It's probably not the fault of Victor Hugo’s novel: Exploring just one of the story’s themes – the need for forgiveness in a world where injustice and lack of compassion are the order of the day – could easily fill more than 1,000 pages. So why not make a bulky doorstop of a musical out of the thing, as Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel did in France in 1980? (Herbert Kretzmer would later supply the English-language libretto.) The show went on to thrill audiences on 86 continents, bringing in $982.3 trillion – or thereabouts – in revenues.
Now, Hooper’s film adaptation looms even larger. Plus, it stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, all looking much larger than life. Jackman is the hero, the peasant Jean Valjean, who, as the movie opens, is just being sprung from 19 years of toil and torture in prison. His crime? Stealing a loaf of bread to feed his relatives. But Russell Crowe’s Javert, a man of the law who adheres to the rules 101 per cent, declares that Valjean is “a dangerous man” and decrees that he must be “on parole forever.”
Jean almost succumbs to that self-fulfilling prophecy before doing a complete turnaround and becoming the mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, though he continues to live under cover, lest Javert smoke him out. Which, of course, he eventually does. All of this takes place in an era of political upheaval and social injustice: Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen show us lots of impoverished, toothless citizens huddling in the sewers, dressed in rags; in overscaled musicals like this one, that’s what you call hobo chic.
Lots of stuff happens in “Les Misérables”: There’s a failed revolution in which the most idealistic – and the most innocent – are killed. And there’s Jackman’s Jean Valjean, singing valiantly through most of it: One of the tragedies of this hunk of whale blubber is that Jackman really can sing – he does the best he can with the nearly unbroken stream of sung dialogue that constitutes this damn thing.
Others attempt, with varying degrees of success, to hit all the high highs and the low lows, though emotionally speaking, there’s not much in between – everything in “Les Misérables” is turned up to 11, and if Hooper achieved some degree of mainstream-pitched subtlety in his last feature, the pleasingly polished “The King’s Speech,” he’s lost the magic touch here. Amanda Seyfried makes a serviceably waifish Cosette; Eddie Redmayne is clumsy but earnest as her true love, Marius. When Samantha Barks, as the spurned Éponine, makes her ultimate act of self-abnegation, she spreads out every color she’s got in a peacock display of sacrificial misery. It’s too much, and yet not enough. And Crowe, having taken a wrong turn from a community-theater production of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” belongs in a special category by himself: He looks so uncomfortable, trussed into an assortment of stiff, brass-buttoned coats, that I began to feel sorry for him. But then I came to my senses and stopped.
Only Hathaway’s defeated and demoralized tragic heroine Fantine, in the killer show-stopper tearjerker “I Dreamed a Dream,™” manages to claw her way toward anything resembling true emotion. Her features – the Paul Klee eyes, those pillowy cracked lips – are large enough to stand up to the hyperbombast that surrounds her.
For some, “Les Misérables” may be harmless enough fun: There’s something to be said for going to the cinema and getting thoroughly cleaned out, having every surface emotion flushed right out of you. And still, there’s something that makes me uncomfortable about the picture. Here in New York this week, a man was killed when he was pushed from a subway platform and couldn’t climb up from the tracks fast enough: There wasn’t, apparently, time to save him from the train bearing down on him, but there was time for someone to snap a picture of his terror and desperation. (The New York Post, which ostensibly had time to decide whether or not to run the picture, predictably took the low road.) In the context of this event – a moment in which no one stepped in to help, even if no one was genuinely able to help -- I should appreciate the themes of “Les Misérables” even more. Crimes against humanity are often delicate, small and brutal; their effects are long-lasting. Victor Hugo probably could have written 10,000 pages on that subject, but “Les Miserables” just turns it into a cinematic enema. Its garishness is no damn fun.