MOVIE REVIEW: The singing will be hard to resist in gloomy 'Les Miserables'


Special Photo: Universal Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman star in "Les Miserables."

2 out of 4 stars


There are two types of movie people: those who unconditionally adore musicals and the rest of us that generally abhor them. If you've ever wondered why there are only a couple of musicals released each year all the proof you need will be found in the nearly three hours of film in this, the 70th incarnation of "Les Miserables."

Up until 1980 when it was first reborn and eventually became one of the longest-running and beloved stage musicals of all time, writer Victor Hugo's 1862 novel was viewed by dramatists for what it was: a tragic epic on a par with Tolstoy's "War & Peace." Set in early 19th century France, it is top-heavy with everything the title implies: miserable, oppressed and unhappy people living in squalor and/or escaping false imprisonment and persecution.

This is not the type of subject matter most viewers would consider to be desirable Christmas fare and it becomes all the more glaringly unappealing when presented by singing characters. When presented as a non-musical, it remains one of the greatest stories ever told. When accompanied by song, it becomes sheer bombastic torture.

More closely resembling the 1980 stage version than any other previous film version this production decidedly values style over substance. Director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for "The King's Speech," has abandoned that film's soft touch and has instead decided on an approach that is more akin to a Michael Bay action flick than thoughtful, introspective drama.

We know we're in for a rollercoaster ride right from the start when lead protagonist Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is introduced while operating an oar on a prison ship. Although disheveled and malnourished, Valjean still has the strength to belt out the opening number with brute, vein-popping bluster. For the duration, every note escaping from Jackman's mouth (frequently seen in close-ups only a dentist could appreciate) shoots for the fences -- and he's not alone.

Russell Crowe co-stars as Javert, the lawman who doggedly pursues Valjean for the better part of 20 years. A part-time musician and a more than capable singer of gritty rock 'n' roll, the thoroughly miscast Crowe is forced to sing in a flat and tuneless upper-register that never once hits its mark. Perhaps recognizing this, this normally smooth and confident Crowe -- dressed in a tight-fitting "Cap'N Crunch" outfit complete with a silly sideways hat -- appears equally ashamed and embarrassed. Though some may argue otherwise, Javert marks Crowe's career nadir.

Blessed with having both the best and shortest principal role in the production, Anne Hathaway appears as Fantine, a once naive factory girl whose unexpected teen pregnancy eventually leads to a life of prostitution and general disrepair. Considered to be the only facet of the film everyone finds favorable, Hathaway's heartbreaking rendering of the centerpiece song "I Dreamed a Dream" is so moving and dynamic most consider her to be the decided front-runner for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

In a move designed to offset all of the gloom, doom and despair, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play a couple operating an inn and provide what is designed to be the comic relief. We know they're supposed to be funny because each wears loud clothes and are fitted with rotting fake teeth. As much as the film needs a light-hearted diversion, this was not the way to do it.

As with the lion's share of most movie musicals, "Les Miserables" becomes its own worst enemy with its over-reliance of songs -- 50 or so of them -- that pretty much sound the same and are all depressing. Having people breaking into song for no reason whatsoever can work in a lighter, breezier context -- something along the lines of "My Fair Lady," "Singin' in the Rain" or perhaps the surprise smash crowd-pleaser "Mamma Mia!" Even productions with darker undercurrents ("West Side Story," "The Sound of Music," "Moulin Rouge") can work if not weighed down by such bleak, grimy, unsavory and despondent visuals.

What will be impossible to resist for musical junkies -- or any fan of the various cast members will be the singing. As opposed to virtually every filmed musical where the vocals are performed in a studio during post-production, the singing here is filmed live and -- with the noted exception of Crowe -- performed as if it were on stage. It's a small victory but in the case of "Les Miserables," any victory however minute it might be, must be savored. (Universal)