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Les Miserables

Nominated for Best Picture at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Actor(Hugh Jackman)at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress(Anne Hathaway)at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Original Song(“Suddenly”)at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Costume Design at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Makeup at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Sound Mixing at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Production Design at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

Russell Crowe can’t sing. That’s a pretty hefty distraction when you’re cast as one of the two male leads in the film version of one of the biggest musicals of all time. His physicality seems just right for the role, however—I mean this is “Gladiator”, after all. If only they could have done something about those pipes. It’s a one note musical performance, so there’s great difficulty in discerning any transition in emotion from Crowe’s Inspector Javert. It took a re-listen of the 1987 Original Broadway Cast Recording to remind me how it should be done(thank you Terrence Mann!). I experienced Les Miserables for myself on the Great White Way, almost exactly 25 years ago—with most of the original cast intact. So, there was a level of apprehension as the premiere of Tom Hooper’s behemoth approached last month. Crowe’s belting ineptitude confirmed much of that dread as warranted. However, as much as I mocked it in advance(based on its lukewarm reception from critics), it’s decidedly not ALL bad. In fact, the first half is almost winning, with some wonderfully staged musical set-pieces. And for the first 40 minutes or so, Les Miz(as theatre-goers have come to refer to it)is downright smashing thanks to a capable execution of the role of Jean Valjean from the eclectic Hugh Jackman. Then, of course, there is also the downright shattering one from an amazing Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine. Her Oscar is a lock, so you can tuck that one away in the vault right now. So, allow me to shed at least one tear for always-the-bridesmaid Amy Adams(4 supporting actress noms—and 3 losses, so far)of “The Master”. Her magnificent turn garners her gold in just about any other year—curse the lack of a weeping, dirt-smeared, hair-chopped, molar-less(simulated tooth-yanking, of course)delivery of the signature song from Les Miz. How could Amy possibly compete? I’m not knocking Anne—she blows the doors off of “I Dreamed a Dream”. But boy is that decked stacked against Hathaway’s fellow nominees. Not Ms. Anne’s concern, but it’s clearly a mismatch with the inclusion of that weeper. Susan Boyle, eat your heart out.

So, Jean Valjean(Mr. Jackman)is paroled from hard labor after 19 years served for stealing a loaf of bread. Yup, bread. Inspector Javert(Mr. Crowe)warns Valjean to stay on the straight and narrow, but he almost immediately steals again—just like last time, to avoid starving. The Bishop he robs from(super cool cameo from Colm Wilkinson, the original London and New York Jean Valjean!)shows him kindness and tells police that he gave Valjean the stolen goods. Ashamed, Valjean swears to never be a common criminal again, and breaks parole to set out on a new life of honesty and integrity. Eight years later, Valjean is a successful businessman and mayor. Unbeknownst to him, a sexually harassing foreman at Valjean’s factory, fires a young woman when he discovers she is sending money to her illegitimate daughter. The young woman is Fantine(the soon to be thanking the Academy, Anne Hathaway), and her daughter Cosette is being housed by the treacherous Thenardiers(Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter—both in fine comic form)at their filthy, rundown inn. The unemployed Fantine soon turns to a life of prostitution to support her young girl. When Fantine is arrested after attacking an abusive customer, she is first arrested by Javert and then saved by Valjean. Valjean also learns that Javert has mistakenly arrested a man who the inspector believes to be him. What to do? Valjean confesses his actual identity, but escapes to honorably visit a now sick and dying Fantine at the hospital. Valjean promises the fading Fantine that he will dedicate his life to watching over Cosette and remove her from the “care” of the evil Thenardiers. Valjean goes on the run with Cosette for nine years before becoming entangled in the bloody French June Rebellion. Oh, and there are a group of new characters that you are just about to meet. And, of course, there are songs. Lots and lots of songs(apparently around 50, including the spankin’ new “Suddenly”).

Did I pick on this adaptation unfairly when it was still sight unseen? Yeah—I guess I’m guilty. Was I wildly off-base, though? Not exactly. I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed(even adored)the work of Hathaway, Jackman, Cohen and Bonham Carter. But Crowe is a vocal nightmare, and he’s an inexcusable casting choice. And the production struggles to maintain focus in an overstuffed second half. Director Tom Hooper is game, but his inexperience shows. Hooper may be an Oscar winner(2010’s Best Picture “The King’s Speech”), but stammering royalty and all-singing extravaganzas are apples and oranges. Director Tim Burton was far more successful 5 years ago with his marvelous cinematic vision for Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—most likely the finest of the Broadway musical adaptations I’ve seen brought to the big screen in the last couple of decades. That list includes “Les Miz”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Evita”, “Rent”, “Dreamgirls”, “Hairspray”, “Mamma Mia!”, “Chicago”…there sure have been a bunch. Some are dreadful(“Mamma Mia!”), some are passable(“Hairspray”)and a select few are quite good(“Chicago” won the Best Picture Oscar for 2002, and the victory wasn’t exactly a travesty). “Les Miserables” isn’t awful, but it is the weakest of the 9 Best Picture nominees(alright, at least out of 8, but I have unshakeable faith in the brilliant Michael Haneke when I finally get to see his Cannes-winner “Amour” in the next few days.). Also, “Les Miz” seems slavishly faithful to the stage show—my fresh listen revealed very little diversion, so it should play well to the purists. “Les Miserables” is a mixed-bag, but an honorable attempt. So, I’m going to let this one squeak through and give it a mild recommendation.       Grade:  B-


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