I never "Dreamed a Dream" or pleaded for "One Day More." But fans of "Les Misérables" — the original stage musical adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, that is — know those references well. Tom Hooper's big-screen adaptation works hard to pander to them. The moment Claude-Michel Schonberg's score kicks in, with the solemn baritone chorus of "Work Song," as hordes of imprisoned Frenchmen jointly lament their downtrodden lives, those smitten with this sprawling, mournful tale of the French Revolution might get goosebumps. That's mostly conjecture, of course, since when I saw this scene and countless others in Hooper's "Les Misérables" I felt no excitement over familiar tunes or the return of a beloved tale.
Instead, "Les Misérables" played to me like a mopey, at times notably beautiful but overproduced musical soap opera. While impressive in parts for its epic sweep, the movie is routinely marred by blatantly cheesy, self-serious flourishes, uneven performances and misguided attempts to puncture the theatricality with superfluous cinematic devices. Hooper's "The King's Speech" turned history into a crowdpleaser with the giddy payoff of a sports movie, an inoffensive trivialization compared to the director's treatment of this material, which becomes a bombastic eruption of baroque reference points and flashy showdowns. Relying heavily on close-ups over the course of a two-and-a-half hour narrative with almost no spoken dialogue, Hooper's approach comes across as the equivalent of sitting in the front row of a stage play while the entire cast leans forward and blares each song into your eardrums.
To be fair, some of them blare better than others. In roughly 10 minutes of screen time, Anne Hathaway delivers one of the most powerful performances of the year in the tragic role of Fantine, the despondent prostitute who dies early on, shortly after reformed criminal-turned-mayor Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) takes her under his wing and vows to rescue her young daughter Cosette (played in her adult life by Amanda Seyfried).
Cosette, a blond-haired witness to seismic shifts in French society, is a poster child for the story and yet its least interesting character. The other main players face intriguing conflicts stymied by a style that necessitates a stagy delivery in spite of the medium's capacity to push beyond those roots. Jackman, initially a downtrodden criminal, then a committed surrogate father and responsible citizen, shifts from the look of a disheveled loner to a chiseled hero without changing his enthusiastically open-mouthed delivery, the sort of ostentatious display that worked more in his favor as an Academy Awards host (Hathaway, by contrast, does penance for her own embarrassing Oscar emcee duties with a reminder of her capacity for onscreen fragility).
For the brooding, soulful character of Valjean, however, Jackman's delivery is a blandly overconfident display. At least that's better than the embarrassment of Russell Crowe, strangely wooden as the cruel Inspector Javert, who spends his days pursuing Valjean through his years as an escaped convict and refuses to accept the man's reformed ways. Both Jackman and Crowe make excellent tough guys in furious action vehicles, but here they're like toy figurines wound up and clashing against each other in a superficial display.
That doesn't mean "Les Misérables" isn't emotionally effective, but rather that its emotional effectiveness takes the form of an increasingly grating display. Like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the movie hovers around manipulative triggers and frequently pulls them. The actors frequently cry in accordance with predetermined rhythms: Learning of Valjean's vow to help her daughter, Fantine wails, "Good monsieur, you come from God in heaven," as her voice cracks on cue; earlier, when rescued by a priest while on the lam, Valjean similarly breaks down while moaning, "one word from him and I'd be back on the rack."
Humorous turns by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the thieving Monsieur and Madame Thénardier are comically out of sync with these wearisome displays, but they do provide reminders of how enjoyable the pair were alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's undervalued adaptation of "Sweeney Todd." At least that violent, gothic display didn't beg for tears. In Hooper's "Les Misérables," the mopey songs arrive like a series of flowery excuse notes for a lack of originality, and even fans may be better off dreaming a different dream.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening on Christmas Day, the movie is likely to perform well due to the popularity of the material and the lack of major competition (smaller audiences will turn to "Django Unchained," opening the same day, instead). With likely enthusiasm for its set pieces, the movie is sure to maintain visibility during awards season, but in a crowded year its chances of winning major awards (aside from a supporting actress nod for Hathaway) are slim.