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LYT Review: Because it’s “Les Miz,” and it’s…AAAAAWEsome!

Not to belabor the WWE/Mike Mizanin joke too much – though that is kinda my thing – I look around at the other reviews of Les Miserables that have emerged, and my response is: “Really. Really? Really. Reeeeeally?” There’s a cynicism there that’s hard to fathom. And this is coming from a guy who has never been a big musical fan.

Like many others of my generation, I suspect, I never particularly “got” Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, or whoever else. I only finally learned how to appreciate the musical form thanks to Trey Parker, whose South Park movie and its predecessor Cannibal: The Musical followed the traditional conventions to a tee (even aping Les Miz in the “La Resistance” number) while being completely hilarious throughout. Then Tim Burton did Sweeney Todd, and I was kinda down with that too, even though it wasn’t all that comedic. Unlike in something like Chicago, to my relief, the songs had clever rhymes and some wit.

From what I’ve gleaned of Les Miz peripherally, it seems like the Lord of the Rings of musicals – an epic play everybody’s been waiting to see turned into a massive-budget cinematic magnum opus. And it has been, indeed. From the opening shots of a gigantic ship being towed into dock by slaves on ropes to its finale in the French revolution, this is not a movie that does things by half. Even in the smaller, intimate moments, the camera stays put on actors who sing their hearts out as they attempt (mostly with success) to make their voices and emotions the equal of all the special effects exploding all around. Yes, it’s bombastic, unironic, and quite clearly expensive. If you can’t accept that, it’s not the movie for you. But if you can take in the film’s operatic world as presented, you’ll be taken on a ride well worth the assaults on your senses.

In case you missed reading the book in English class, or seeing the ’90s nonmusical version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman here), a French peasant who steals a loaf of bread and is hounded forever after by stickler-for-the-law Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). This film begins with Valjean about to end his prison sentence, only to be marked as a dangerous criminal for the rest of his life, unable to find employment and required to check in constantly with his captors. Instead he runs away, and after receiving an unexpected act of kindness reinvents himself as “Mr. La Mer” and becomes a successful businessman [UPDATE: GM in comments below clarifies that in fact "When Valjean assumes a new identity, he becomes M. le maire, the Mayor of the town."], though not one who always runs a tight ship, as an employee named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is cruelly dismissed by a supervisor who isn’t happy to learn she’s a single mother. Her life falls apart, and Valjean finds her again, not in time to save her, but at least take guardianship of her daughter, Cosette (the little girl you see on all the posters, even though she’s barely in the movie or the play as such), who will eventually grow up to be Amanda Seyfried.

That takes us to about the midpoint, at which the plot diverges into a love-at-first-sight story between a teenage Cosette and a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). For those of us who are more invested in the Valjean/Javert dynamic – and I suspect that’s most of us – it takes some time to deal with this turn of events. The film’s least convincing moment is when Marius sees Cosette at a distance and knows it’s true love immediately, as the oft-attractive Seyfried is lit poorly in that scene and far from looking her radiant best, while Marius happens to be in the company of an absolute bombshell named Eponine (newcomer Samantha Barks), but in classic movie fashion, the fact that the latter is not blonde may seal her fate. Redmayne’s emotional and vocally strong performance recovers our attention, but it’s hard to feel much for his revolutionary band of brothers with no backstory.

It’s also tough to assess this all the same way one would a typical narrative feature – it’s sensation and spectacle, played in deliberately broad strokes, but it’s certainly demonstrative of the notion that being pitch-perfect isn’t enough when singing. To really excel, the emotion must be brought as well, and if the song’s written just right, it can be almost a cheat sheet – there’s a reason Dreamgirls‘ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” wins acting awards for everyone who’s able to pull it off. Here, Anne Hathaway gets a moment akin to Jennifer Hudson’s, and director Tom Hooper wisely just holds the camera on her face as she leans against the wall. Nothing more is needed; it brings the house down.

Russell Crowe is perhaps the performer most people are suspicious of here, as his singing experience is in a rock band rather than musical theater. But he’s no Meat Loaf; his vocals are thinner and reedier than one might expect, and even seem a tad off-key at first, though he brings it home by the end. It matches the character, however; this Javert is one repressed dude, and unlike Geoffrey Rush’s interpretation of the character as a sneering villain, Crowe plays him as much as a masochist as sadist, longing to be punished for his own transgressions, perceived and real.

Is the movie long? Is it lacking in subtlety? Sure. But blaming it for those things feels like blaming The Avengers for showing too many superheroes. It may be that the stage version has some brilliant way of doing things even more effectively, but I have yet to read a pan of the film that can clearly tell me what way that might be. The songs rhyme and convey emotion; if some of them bludgeon you to tears, well, that’s a feature, not a bug. There is comic relief, by the way, in what amounts to a terrific in-joke: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter show up as if they’d just jogged in from the set of Sweeney Todd to play variations on those characters as a seedy con artist couple. That they show up conveniently at so many different locations and junctures in Valjean’s life is a conceit we may or may not forgive as being a holdover from a stage production, in which it simply wouldn’t make sense to have multiple actors perform the same plot function. But once you see Cohen’s smart and snappy “Master of the House,” I think you’ll roll with it.

For a guy whose previous film, The King’s Speech, felt like a play forced into becoming a movie, Tom Hooper has now given us practically the opposite – a movie version of a play so grandiose it couldn’t be contained within the proscenium arch. It’s a spectacle that works, and worrying about plot minutiae feels a bit like searching for a seashell in the sand while a tidal wave roars in.

Les Miserables opens Christmas Day.

And that, readers, is my final film review for Nerdist, as I will shortly be heading over to ToplessRobot.com to become the new editor. It’s been a blast, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Nerdist.com Editor-in-Chief Perry Michael Simon for the chance to have been able to do this for you. Nerdist has some of the best commenters ever and I will miss y’all; follow me on Twitter @LYTrules if you want to keep up. Whether you agreed or disagreed, thanks for reading. – LYT

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12 comments

  • “The film’s least convincing moment is when Marius sees Cosette at a distance and knows it’s true love immediately, as the oft-attractive Seyfried is lit poorly in that scene and far from looking her radiant best, while Marius happens to be in the company of an absolute bombshell named Eponine (newcomer Samantha Barks), but in classic movie fashion, the fact that the latter is not blonde may seal her fate. ”

    Eponine is the Rizzo to Cosette’s Sandy — you know the tropes well enough to know who’s going to end up with who but anybody worth knowing realizes the brunette is the better part.

  • GM, I hate to nitpick your nitpick, but Valjean becomes M. Madeleine not M. LeMaire. In the lyrics of the musical, he is referred to as M. Le Mayor because he has become the Mayor of the town.

    “Valjean, at last, we see each other plain
    Monsieur, Le Mayor, you’ll wear a different chain”

  • Great review, Les Mis is the ONLY musical I’ve seen (and I’ve seen tons) that still chokes me up to this day. The “negative” reviews I’ve seen seem to come from people who don’t like the fact that the majority of characters in this musical have a deep connection to God and spirituality. We all know most in the media are secularists, agnostics, athiests who think of us that CHOOSE to believe in God are somehow lesser forms of life. To them I say, what do I have to lose for believing in a benevolent being such as the chracters in Hugo’s masterpiece? For that, I ignore their weak criticisms as right there they didn’t allow themselves to truly embrace the great characters and songs.

  • The play is a much truncated version of the very long book. The revolutionaries are well-described in the book, and I’ve read that to fully appreciate the play you need to know the whole story. Having seen the play first in about 1989, then reading the book and seeing it a couple more times since, this is indeed the case. The lead revolutionary is a great character but you only see that in shorthand in the play (and, I assume, the movie.)

    On the SBC and HBC roles–those actually ARE the same characters, not the same actors in different roles. You can blame the improbability of that on Victor Hugo, I’m afraid. If I recall my literary history correctly, the book was initially panned critically as overly sentimental, but people came to love it. I always have to explain what’s going on/what happened to people who have not read the book. Anyway–good review.

  • That’s a fair point, GM, and one not made clear to me in the film itself or surrounding materials I could find. I throw myself on the mercy of the court for that one. No apology needed.

    And RG, I will still be reviewing at my new location…but not necessarily movies like Les Miz any more.

  • Oh lord, I hate to nitpick, but I can’t help myself. When Valjean assumes a new identity, he becomes M. le maire, the Mayor of the town. That’s it. I apologize.

    Anyways, great review. It’s great to see a nice, unbiased view from someone who’s not a theater junkie! It’s good to see that this movie holds up for someone with a different perspective (since I’ll probably break down crying from the first note regardless).

    I can’t wait to see it in theaters. All the music was sung live, and I’m really looking forward to the actors’ performances!

  • I was acting and singing at a young age (though I gave it up after school to “get a real job” at the behest of my parents) and as such, am a fan of musical theatre if done well, and similarly, a fan of movies from stage plays if adapted well. Unfortunately it’s easy to screw up the later in many ways (chiefly picking actors for their star power rather than their ability to actually sing the tracks which you’d think would be an important consideration in a musical) and, for fans of the plays, this makes movie adaptions, more often than not, a massive disappointment.

    As such, I have been awaiting Les Mis with trepadation. The trailer I saw the other day gave me goosebumps and likewise, gave me hope that this will be a good adaption. I’ve deliberately avoided reviews just in case, so have not read any prior to yours and, having read it, I’m still hopeful of being blown away by this movie.

    Thank you

  • First off, so happy to see you reviewing this! When I read a few wishy-washy reviews earlier, I thought, “I can’t imagine LYT will agree with that conclusion,” and here you are, not agreeing with them, and my worries are significantly quelled.

    Les Mis is a great entry point into musicals (especially for nerds, due to its epic scale and historical texture), so I recommend that anyone on the fence give it a shot.

    And secondly, I’ll miss seeing your reviews here, Luke! Your reviews are always pleasantly uncynical, and you seem to have an innate sense of exactly what to expect from a movie. That puts you ten up on so many film writers. Your reviews are the only ones I can read in advance and not spoil my own moviegoing experience with some pall-casting nitpick. Best of luck at ToplessRobot!