<i>Les Miz</i> Tries Hard but Peaks Too Soon

Christa Banister

DVD Release Date: March 22, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama/Musical
Run Time: 157 min.
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne

For anyone who hasn’t experienced the neck-cricking discomfort of watching a movie from the front row, don’t worry, you’re about to get your chance with Les Misérables.

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Perhaps, in an effort to underscore the sense of realism he’s fostered by having the actors sing live rather than lip sync, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) relies heavily on dramatic close-ups that feel about an inch from showcasing the performers' tonsils. Yes, no matter where you’re sitting, you get that front row feeling, and after a while, your patience can’t help but wear thin.

Now if success—or lack thereof—was determined purely on effort, then no question, Les Misérables would easily earn an "A." From the outset, it’s clear that neither subtle nor run-of-the-mill is what Hooper and his cohorts were going for. The costumes, choreography, the sheer attention to detail in making France and its street folk look as grungy as possible... it’s all grandiose and spectacular, just as a big-budget, big-screen musical should be.

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Unfortunately, ambition alone isn’t nearly enough to elevate Les Mis from merely good to great. If anything, the movie peaks a third of the way through. While there’s little doubt that Anne Hathaway’s heart-wrenching turn as the doomed Fantine will earn her Supporting Actress gold (and rightly so, considering her stunning, emotion-packed performance of “I’ve Dreamed a Dream”), the moment comes—and goes—much too soon.

See, as competent as theater veteran Hugh Jackman (Real Steel) is in the role of the persecuted hero Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for nearly two decades for nothing more than stealing a bit of bread, he just doesn’t have the same scene-stealing sparkle that Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) does. And quite a bit of that can probably be attributed to the miscasting of his arch rival, the relentless pursuer of "justice," Javert (Russell Crowe, Robin Hood).

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If Crowe and Jackman’s characters were allowed to communicate through dialogue, rather than song, it probably would’ve worked better. Sure, Crowe has the brawny physical presence to pull off such a menacing character, but the husky voice that was probably fine for his rock band simply isn’t up to the task here. From the get-go, his lack of bravado is actually a distraction, and while not nearly as embarrassing as Pierce Brosnan’s thin pipes in Mamma Mia!, one can’t help wondering who else was considered for the part.

The seemingly unending tension between Jean and Javert is crucial to the story, and because it’s not there, the audience is forced to look for inspiration elsewhere. There are a few bursts of excitement in the welcome comic relief of Cosette’s (Amanda SeyfriedMamma Mia!) opportunistic innkeepers Thénardier and his Madame, played by Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows), respectively. Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) is also a standout, particularly vocally, as Marius, Cosette’s love interest. And theater alum Samantha Barks, who reportedly beat out Taylor Swift for the role of Eponine, was an inspired bit of casting. Like Hathaway, she immediately commands your attention and doesn’t let go.

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Truth be told, the lengths the filmmakers go to tug at your heart strings with Les Misérables is gutsy. From beginning to end, they’re practically begging you to feel something, anything, even daring you not to tear up as you watch the plight of the suffering. But after a while, all the hand-held camerawork, the bloated soundtrack and shameless jerking with your emotions with all those close-ups just leaves you feeling dizzy. It’s not a journey without its merits, but dialing it down a little might have helped.

CAUTIONS:

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Christa Banister is an author and full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

Publication date: December 24, 2012

For more on Les Misérables, visit www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/les-miserables-2012/.

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