A tale of two movie musicals

The last two movie musicals I’ve seen were very, very similar in some ways. Adapted from a stage operetta that in turn was based on a popular 19th Century work, each was about a convicted criminal who breaks paroles and unlawfully returns, decades later, to the capital city and, under a pseudonym becomes a successful and respected member of the petit bourgeoisie.  The protagonist contends with long-memoried officials and assorted low-lifes (including a none-too-fastidious cook played by Helena Bonham Carter and an overdressed conman played by Sacha Baron Cohen); he dies at the end, but not before he sees his daughter safely married to the man she loves.  Each movie starts on a dockside, with the criminal finally a free man,  and reaches its climax in a corpse-strewn sewer.

Despite these surprising (and, as far as I know, accidental) similarities, there are far larger, and more significant differences.
Sweeney Todd, the 2007 movie based on the wildly popular 1979 stage musical, comes originally from a 1846-47 penny-dreadful serial called “The String of Pearls”, almost forgotten today, its author isn’t even known for sure.  In the story, Benjamin Barker is wrongly convicted of an unspecified crime and transported to Australia.  He illegally returns to London and sets himself as a barber named Sweeney Todd.  Tortured by his thirst for vengeance, he eventually becomes a serial killer.  He remains sympathetic, simply because almost every other character is so much worse: venal, callous, greedy, and corrupt.
Absolutely miserableLes Misérables, the 2012 movie released today and based on the wildly popular 1980 stage musical, comes originally from the historical novel by Victor Hugo, considered one of the great novels of the 19th Century, up there with Moby Dick and David Copperfield.  In the story, Jean Valjean is justly convicted of theft and then of escape and serves 19 years on a chain gang, before illegally returning to Paris.  Unlike Barker, Valjean is ennobled, almost sanctified by his experiences.  In fact, no major character is particularly bad.

Perhaps that is the greatness of the novel–which, full disclosure, I haven’t read: no one is capital-e Evil.  No one (except the comic-relief Thénardier family) is greedy or vengeful or cruel.  Their motivations are subtle.  The policeman Javert believes that by pursuing Valjean he is carrying out God’s will; his version of God holds men accountable to a stern and unyielding justice.  Javert worships the Old Testament’s God, and if Valjean broke the law once, Javert reasons, he must be an outcast, like Cain.  Valjean himself worships a New Testament God and at every step endangers himself by attempt to, as he sees it, emulate God’s mercy.  He confesses his identity to save a stranger mistaken for him; he adopts Cosette because he failed to save her mother Fantine from a life on the streets; and so on.

It’s the difficulties of conveying these subtle and complex motivations that lead to the major difference between Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables.  Sweeney Todd is a great stage play and a very good movie.

Les Misérables, live and filmed, sucks.  It’s just awful, almost unbearable.

The basic problem is that the movie needs to stop every few minutes to have someone sing an aria, trying to explain why he did what he just did.  And “stop” it does.  Half the movie seems to consist of one character or another singing right into the camera.  The lyrics are so freighted, they’re supposed to be so significant, that they’re totally unmemorable.  The tunes are unmemorable too, and almost interchangeable.  To make it worse, in the film version, every voice is autotuned into a bland indistinguishable tenor.  The only song that isn’t instantly forgettable is “Master Of The House”, where the gleefully evil Thénardiers introduce themselves — the characters and the song could have been lifted from Sweeney Todd and the performers actually were.

But all this endless explaining and motivating doesn’t actually work.   Unless you are paying close attention, Valjean goes from being an sullen thief to a plaster saint for no reason and then at the end, when he’s meddling in the relationship between his ward Cosette and her lover Marius, he seems to have developed an creepy crush on the girl (I was paying close attention and I still couldn’t grasp what he was really trying to accomplish).  Javert doesn’t need much motivation, since he’s being paid to arrest Valjean, but neither does he seems to work very hard at, just finding himself at the right time and place, over and over again.

As wounded as the concept inherently is, the movie still manages to shoot itself in the foot a few more times.  The CGI is so pervasive and so unconvincing — starting from the Saturday-morning-cartoon quality opening scene — that when we finally get to a scene shot on a practical set, the funeral of General Lamarque, it’s a jarring change, as if the projectionist had loaded a reel from a different movie altogether.  Most of the casting is good (Russell Crowe is surprisingly sympathetic as Javert), but Amanda Seyfried is laughably unappealing as Cosette; that Marius ignores Éponine (Samantha Barks, inexplicably attractive) for her seems bizarre and implausible.  Someone in the theater near me exclaimed, “Seyfried looks like a bug!”  And she does!

When the play first opened, it was savaged by critics, but made huge box-office and is the second longest-running musical in history. The movie seems to be doing well, even with critics this time.  Once bitten, I guess.

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