DURING MY almost-four decades as an entertainment writer-critic, I have covered every popular-arts beat, from film and TV to theater and pop music, and everything in-between (Disney ice shows, anyone?). And nothing - make that absolutely nothing - I have ever seen has thrilled, delighted and moved me more than the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel, "Les Miserables."
Since the touring version of the worldwide smash first hit Philly in the late 1980s, I have seen "Les Miz" (as it's affectionately and universally known) at least a dozen times, on stages ranging from Broadway's Imperial Theater (where '80s pop tart Debbie Gibson starred as the doomed guttersnipe Eponine) to the Lenape Regional School District's Performing Arts Center at Cherokee High School in Marlton, N.J.
So the arrival of the film version of the musical, which opens Christmas Day, is of major import to me. And, I imagine, for most devotees ("Les Miz" Kids?) like myself, the most important question isn't whether it is a worthwhile cinematic endeavor (for that, I direct you to Gary Thompson's review). Instead, it is whether director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") and his cast of A-list movie stars have done justice to our beloved stage play.
More to the point, will those with boundless love for, and devotion to, the stage version feel the movie does justice to the play?
Overall, the answer is yes.
Hooper's "Les Miz" stars Hugh Jackman as the story's ex-convict hero, Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert - the pious and monomaniacal police inspector who hounds the philosophically (if not legally) innocent Valjean through the early decades of 19th-century France - and Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine, who leaves her daughter Cosette's upbringing to Valjean.
Hard-core fans will be relieved to know the film is mostly faithful to the blueprint conceived in the 1980s by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, librettist Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (who adapted and expanded upon the original, French-language work). No new characters (except for a couple very minor appearances by the grandfather of Marius, the adult Cosette's love interest) have been added, and scenes and song sequences generally remain intact (although many numbers are truncated).
There is, however, one new tune written for the movie, a surprisingly Disney-ish piece called "Suddenly," sung by Valjean after he spirits the young Cosette away from the clutches of her guardians, the thoroughly (but comically) repugnant couple, the Thenardiers.
I admit I was a bit concerned when word came that the film's script added dialogue to what is a virtually "sung-through" program, but these snippets of dialogue are minimal and do nothing to impede the score's flow.
That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that "Les Miserables" does fall short in some respects.
For openers, there is the matter of some of the casting. Broadway vet Jackman, Hathaway (who, with her sheared hair looks disconcertingly in a couple scenes like Tony Danza), Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) are all stellar. Not so much Russell Crowe (Javert) and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Thenardiers).
Dramatically speaking, Crowe definitely captures his character's unyielding, stick-up-the-you-know-what essence. But vocally, he is in over his head.
As with all of the cast members who are not primarily singers, Crowe's vocals were not dubbed by a professional singer (and they were recorded live, to boot, rather than synced to the film at a later date). And while he can carry a tune with pleasing tones, Crowe comes nowhere near delivering the kind of chesty, near-operatic sound his role demands. So, for example, "Stars," an intensely dramatic number during which Javert vows to apprehend Valjean, is turned into, at best, a heavier-than-average pop song.
In any live production of "Les Miz," the naughty, bawdy, and hilarious "Master of the House" (performed by the Thenardiers) is a guaranteed showstopper. But in the hands of Baron Cohen and Carter, the sequence lacks the raucous, joyous energy that makes it so much fun. Perhaps it's the jump-cut editing that takes much of the wind out of the piece's sails. Or maybe it's that the seemingly nonstop sight gags distract from the lyrics.
But the two stars must bear some of the blame as well. They seem to treat the segment as too much of a star turn, and not enough of the character-exposition piece that it actually is. And the very tall, very lanky Cohen just doesn't look right in a role usually performed by far more portly actors.
But the film's biggest problem is that it lacks the stage version's wrenching melodrama. In the theater, my eyes seldom stay dry in many scenes, most of them having to do with the death of one character or another. But it's just too easy to separate the glittering movie stars from their pathetic, misery-drenched characters (e.g. that's not some pathetic homeless woman, that's Anne Hathaway, for cryin' out loud!).
Nonetheless, the film's opening is great news. But there's even better news, and it has nothing to do with the movie: Thanks to some propitious timing, the national tour of "Les Miz" returns to Philly Jan. 2 for a 12-day run. Hopefully, all of the hype surrounding the film will inspire those who haven't yet had this most wonderful of live theatrical experiences to check it out at the Academy of Music.