Film Review: Eagerly-awaited 'Les Misérables' lumbers along

This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean holding Isabelle Allen as Young Cosette in a scene from 'Les Miserables.' (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham)

This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean holding Isabelle Allen as Young Cosette in a scene from "Les Miserables." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham)

As a sickly single mother forced into prostitution, Anne Hathaway's performance is a rare bright spot in director Tom Hooper's clunky adaptation of "Les Misérables."

Photo by Laurie Sparham

As a sickly single mother forced into prostitution, Anne Hathaway's performance is a rare bright spot in director Tom Hooper's clunky adaptation of "Les Misérables."

Movie Review

‘Les Misérables’

Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and adult themes.

The motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the ...

Rating: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

Length: 157 minutes

Released: December 25, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: William Nicholson, Herbert Kretzmer

More info and showtimes »

Former University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari used to bemoan the "miserables" who didn't appreciate his hard work and lavishly compensated sacrifice.

According to Calipari, the "miserables" were so-called fans who always looked on the dark side. They found perverse happiness in negativity.

That useful if self-serving Caliparianism comes to mind as I try to put into words my lack of enthusiasm for the similarly spelled but differently pronounced "Les Misérables," possibly the most eagerly awaited movie musical of the past several decades.

Lumbering and redundant, director Tom Hooper's film offers proof yet again — after "Nine," "Idlewild," "Burlesque," "Rock of Ages" and more — that the Hollywood musical has become, like lye soap and cursive handwriting, almost a lost art.

Inspired by Victor Hugo's very serious 1862 novel of history, romance and moral philosophy, the musical "Les Misérables" has been a global phenomenon since the 1980s, when it made its stage debut in Paris, then London and finally New York, where it originally ran from 1987 to 2003. It remains the third-longest-running show in Broadway history (behind "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats"), and was the winner of eight 1987 Tony awards, including Best Musical.

Embraced as "Les Miz" by its rabid and influential fan base, it helped make America safe again for show tunes, and cleared the way for such mainstream living-room successes as "American Idol" and "Glee."

That fan base is the entity that might characterize me as a "miserable" (or perhaps "miz-erable") for my indifference to this clunky film version of "Les Misérables," which arrives in theaters on Christmas Day with the thud of an overstuffed fruitcake. I never saw "Les Miz" onstage, so I can't comment on whether the film honors or betrays its source, but I can say that contrary to its genre categorization, the movie is not particularly musical.

Epic in length (157 minutes) as well as production value, "Les Misérables" tells its convoluted but not particularly complex story almost entirely through Andrew Lloyd Webber-style "song dialogue," but there's little dancing here, nor much rhythm or syncopation. The only performer who really puts a song over is the Falconetti-coiffed Anne Hathaway as a tragic virtuous factory seamstress turned single mother and prostitute; her showstopping single-take solo version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a transporting moment in a movie that otherwise is as transcendent as a cannonball.

"Les Misérables" opens in 1815 among a group of enslaved prison laborers that includes our hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, earnest and dull), sentenced to 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Jean's nemesis is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who becomes obsessed with returning Valjean to jail after the man's parole.

The pursuit covers two decades, endangering not just Valjean but also Valjean's ward, beautiful young Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), in love with a student revolutionary (Eddie Redmayne) who is eager to risk his life on the barricades during the anti-monarchist insurrection of 1832. This late-developing romance is the dullest part of a story that proves increasingly tedious and perhaps excessively and almost humorously "authentic" in gritty detail: You've never seen so many suppurating pustules on the faces of so much Paris rabble.

The Oscar-winning director of the Oscar-wining Best Picture of 2010, "The King's Speech," Hooper made the important decision here to shoot his stars singing live for the camera, rather than performing to a playback track of flaw-free prerecorded music and vocals. This may have helped the actors, but (Hathaway aside) it proves irrelevant to the audience, which is unlikely to be captivated by many of the numbers. A few, however, benefit from a certain comic vitality (as when crooked innkeepers Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen carouse about while picking pockets and chopping rats for their guests' stew).

As in "The King's Speech," Hooper is fond of looming close-ups shot with distorting wide-angle lenses, and he likes to place characters in an odd corner of the frame, so they appear to be looking beyond the action; add these choices to the movie's impressive sets, décor and costumes, and you have a film that, individual shot for shot, is a treat for the eye. Unfortunately, a motion picture requires that the succession of shots compel our interest, and Hooper loses us in the accumulating bombast of his sprawling narrative.

Other than Hathaway, the movie's scene-stealer is young Daniel Huttlestone as a rebel street urchin who speaks with a pronounced cockney accent, as if he had wandered over from the set of "Oliver Twist." Cute and confident, he's like the Lil' P-Nut of the Paris Uprising, and if he's absurd, at least he's good for a few laughs.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

jimmycliff writes:

Still might see it.

bcintennessee writes:

All you need to read in this review is "I never saw Les Miz onstage." I have seen it onstage several times, in both Memphis and on Broadway, and the movie is fantastic. Go see it!

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