January 3, 2013

'Les Miserables' hit or miss


---- — “Les Miserables” may be the most successful musical in Broadway history. Its long-awaited Hollywood adaptation, however, is a hit or miss affair.

Make no mistake, the legions of die-hard “Les Mis” fans will almost certainly be satisfied, which in itself should make for a dandy box office. Likewise, those who are easily given to tears — and who enjoy being spoon-fed them — will be enormously pleased.

Those who prefer dialogue and a strong narrative over song, however, are unlikely to be converted by this “Les Miserables.”

At this point there can’t be many people who don’t know the classic 19th century story written by novelist Victor Hugo.

Jean Valjean is a poor Frenchman imprisoned for nearly 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release, he becomes a useful member of society, but is still doggedly pursued over the years by the same stubborn inspector, over a similarly tiny violation.

Hugh Jackman, a Broadway veteran, ably and emotionally portrays the noble Valjean. He’s first seen on the final day of his sentence, then faces a string of moral decisions as he transforms from indigent to successful businessman.

Virtually every word of “Les Miserables” is sung, and director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) made an interesting choice, having his actors sing their lines on set — Broadway style — during filming, rather than record them in studio.

It gives the film a more raw feel, but it also exposes some of the vocal shortcomings of the cast. Going with movie actors instead of professional singers means that the multi-million dollar film has less verbal gusto than the average “Les Mis” touring company.

Even Jackman, whose resume qualifies him for the role, strains noticeably with some of his songs. Russell Crowe, who plays his nemesis, the warped policeman Javert, isn’t as terrible as some have made him out to be, but he is stiff and awkward.

Everything is delivered in a low growl, and Crowe seems extremely uncomfortable, especially under the insanely close closeups that Hooper seems to favor. If you watch the film carefully, you might be able to see the exact moment that the realization “Wait, you mean I have to sing EVERYTHING?” crosses Crowe’s face.

Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia”), as Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”), as the young revolutionary who loves her (after one furtive glance?), are merely so-so.

One musical exception is Anne Hathaway, who plays the tragic single mom Fantine and cinched an Oscar nomination with a knock-out performance of the show-stopping tearjerker “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Likewise, Samantha Barks is a standout as the similarly doomed Eponine, a part she played in a London production of the musical. Her performance is one that stays with you after the film ends.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen also deserve notice as a pair of thieving innkeepers who provide the only lighthearted moments in an otherwise grim affair.

“Les Miserables” isn’t without its strong points, but it’s blatantly manipulative and it runs too long. It’s not worth all the fuss … sort of like throwing a guy in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.

Rental Recommendation: “Les Miserables” has been filmed in non-musical form many times. Try the 1998 version, with Liam Neeson (Valjean), Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes. Grade: B

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Les Miserables

Grade: C+

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway

Rated: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)

Running time: 157 minutes