Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Les Miserables: It was fantastic, but I'm going to complain anyway

Warning: Everything after the first paragraph is full of spoilers.
I've never seen Les Mis performed on stage, nor watched any of the previous movie versions, nor read the book.  My knowledge of the story comes solely from a cassette tape that my family used to own that had the major songs on it.  I saw the movie last week, and while I went into it knowing all the words to Master of the House, On My Own, and all the rest, I had only a vague idea of how the characters connected and the plot unfolded.
And here is where you might be waiting for me to say, "...and it was wonderful!  Such a sweeping epic!  I cried twenty-seven times!" etc.  But I like to pick nits, and there were a few little things that bothered me.  If you'd like to hear about them, read on.  If not, just skip the next couple paragraphs.
When I watch a musical, I am totally willing to suspend disbelief and accept the fact that people burst into song while mowing the lawn or whatever.  But when there has been so much talk about the measures taken to bring realism to this film, such as Hathaway's on-screen haircut and 25 pound weight loss, Hugh Jackman's scraggly beard and 30 pound weight loss, and the actors siging live rather than over-dubbing in post-production, it makes the sillier of musical theater conventions harder to accept.  Cosette and Marius fall madly in love after glimpsing each other across a street for five seconds?  Eponine takes a point-blank rifle shot to the chest, but still has the energy to gaze at her unrequited love and sing a duet with him before dying?  I had to keep reminding myself, "It's a musical; just go with it."
How was Jean Valjean able to support himself and Cosette once he rescued her and they went into hiding?  Had he saved up that much money from his factory that they could go nine years living in the cottage and keeping an apartment somewhere else?  They wore fancy clothes and rode around in carriages; it didn't feel like they were keeping a low profile or scaling back.
That scene in the Paris sewers was too much for me.  It was so unrelentingly vile.  Valjean ended up with a full-body mud mask of poop.  The visual was so over the top that I almost laughed out loud during his final life-or-death standoff with Javert.  They kept showing his face, and his eyes were blindingly white against the poop mask.  Why didn't they have him throw up a little?  I've changed blowout diapers that have made me retch, but Jean Valjean wades CHIN DEEP in raw sewage and never flinches.  I know he's a tough guy and has already been through a lot during his years in prison, but still.  There should have been some retching.
Now that I've got that off my chest, let me tell you what was so great about this wonderful, sweeping epic that made me cry twenty-seven times.  Ok, only two times, but really hard cries.  Not a few tears sliding quietly down the cheek, but the kind of cry where you try your best to keep people from hearing you choke on your sobs.
Anne Hathaway has been getting rave reviews for her portrayal of Fantine, and with good reason, because she is fantastic.  The whole time that she sings I Dreamed a Dream, the camera is focused tight on her face.  There's no dancing around, no flashbacks, just her face, sharp cheekbones, hacked-off hair, bloody tooth sockets, and all.  Her performance is so stunning and expressive that I nver got tired of looking at her.  There's a reason that that song was the main focus of the trailer: it's the highlight of the entire movie, even in a movie with lots of powerful scenes.  But the thing about that role is it's kind of a slam dunk.  Movie critics, Oscar voters, and the general public seem to love it when a beautiful woman uglies herself up and/or does ugly things as part of a role (See: Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, Charlize Theron in Monster, and Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Oscar-winning roles all three).  Any actress who does "gritty" is almost guaranteed a good review.  And besides gritty, the role of Fantine is meaty.  Hathaway gets to play a woman who suffers pain and heartbreak, fear, degradation, emotional and physical suffering, resentment, you name it.  And in the end, she sings to a hallucination of her angel-faced child before she submits to the sweet relief of death.  What actress wouldn't want to sink her teeth into that?  People might think Amanda Seyfried as Cosette is boring, but that's just because Cosette is boring.  She's kind and pretty and privileged and she marries the cute rich guy.  Snore.
The rest of the cast is great.  Jackman: great.  Crowe: great.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen are loads of fun as the Thenardiers.  No surprise there, right?  Two talented and notoriously kooky actors playing the roles of the bawdy comic villains.  The only one that bugged me was Eponine.  She has a nice voice and I know she performed the role in London, but her perfect skin and dimples and teeny tiny waist made me feel like she belonged on Glee instead.
So again, in spite of my nitpicking, I still loved the film.  I can't imagine that anyone who hasn't seen the movie has actually read down this far, but if you haven't seen it, I recommend it.


  1. I haven't seen the movie, or the musical, or the book, yet I still read the entire review. It was well explained opinion, and I've been trying to decide whether to drag DS to a baby showing or not.

  2. I love to play the music poorly on my out-of-tune piano but like you had no idea of the plot or connections of characters. I think I'll wait 'till it hits the Redbox so I can choke on my sobs out loud.

  3. Have not seen the movie yet, but your review made me cry 27 times with laughter hearing about the poop mask. I can just imagine Javert being like, "This is stank nasty. Seriously, just go. Whatever."

  4. If you had tried to force yourself through the fifteen-pound novel (which I do not recommend on account of the back pain you will suffer from holding it up) there are a TON (almost literally) of things you would find out that the movie did not have time for. One is that when Jean Valjean and Cosette fall into the garden and find the gardener to be the man he rescued, it is the garden of a convent boarding school. The prior gardener gives up his job for Valjean, Cosette moves into the school, and Valjean takes over the job as gardener. They never go out in public until she graduates, but because he lives on the grounds they can see each other. Other things they left out, thankfully, were the 50 page treatise on the battle of Waterloo and the 30 page discussion of the history of the convent and school. I can't speak to the poop mask, the forty pages of discussion of the Paris sewer system is where I gave up.