Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Years ago, I saw "Les Miserables" on Broadway.  Not because I really wanted to.  It was sort of like required viewing for a Broadway fan.  To maintain your status as a Great White Way denizen, you need to see in order to fulfill a requirement.  Like those English and Math course I had to choke down in college.

Then, about five years ago, I saw a semi-staged version of "Les Miserables" at the Hollywood Bowl.  Not because I really wanted to.  But it was the Bowl's annual musical staging and I always go to them.  I remember very little of the evening.  Who was in it?  Don't know.  How did it sound?  Don't really recall.  All I could conjure up in the recesses of my memory bank was that a lot of people sing and then die. 

Then, again, that is "Les Miserables."

So back it comes like a bad penny.  As a movie that was well received by the critics and blessed with a bunch of Oscar nominations.  Once again, I had little interest in revisiting this history lesson of some French revolt which now is a harbinger of what the United States might look like in about fifty years.  But there is all this Oscar buzz and I need to be conversant at all those swank Hollywood cocktail parties I go to.  Well, I mean...I need to be conversant if I get invited to one of those swank Hollywood cocktail parties.

Off I went.  "Les Miserables" V 3.0.

And boy oh boy, I am glad I did.  I finally got it.

It's funny.  When I originally saw "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway, I didn't like it at all.   I loved the movie version, however.  And so too is my reaction to "Les Miserables."   When the scope and vision is expanded for the big screen, the story finally enveloped me as it never had before.

Indeed, every single moment of the movie is stunning.  As if every frame captured by director Tom Hooper is designed to be a painting in a museum.  Sure, there's plenty of CGI but find me a single movie today that doesn't lean heavily on computer graphics.  Given the film is a tale of hopelessness and grim squalor, it resounds in amazing beauty.   Who knew that the homeless and the dirt poor could look this good? 

If you don't know the saga, you obviously were asleep like me in tenth grade World History.  It's the classic story of class warfare in France several centuries ago.  Or maybe it was last week.  Regardless, it is no way to live out your life in this hell hole.  Except, just as things get bad around them, every character breaks out in song.  There's nary a spoken word in the entire film.  All is sung and beautifully.

The key battle is between Valjean, a man of the people, and Javert, a man of the French police force.  You're never sure what their problem is.  Valjean was once imprisoned as a thief, but I have no idea what he stole.  It certainly wasn't clothing from Nordstrom's.  In this movie, the only really well dressed people are the priests and the nuns.  Maybe they shop at the store when they feature their bi-annual 30% off Clergy Sale.

Then, there's Fantine, a lowly factory worker badly in need of a Lancome treatment at...wait for it...Nordstrom's.  She looks like she's dying from the very first frame so you know your buttered popcorn is going to last longer than her.  Indeed, before she croaks, she entrusts the care of her daughter Cosette to Valjean.  Where Cosette is, nobody knows.  But you know that finding her will take up a chunk of the 2 hour-and-thirty-minute plus screen time. 

Of course, this all gets mixed into the big rebellion in Paris where the downtrodden took a lot of furniture from an Ikea clearance sale and built a barricade against the government.  By now, Valjean is "daddy" to the now-grown-up Cosette and they get tied up with one of the revolters, Marius.  And, naturally, Javart is skulking around so you just know there will be more gunfights and showdowns than at the OK Corral.  Throughout it all, everybody sings, regardless of scurvy, gunshot wounds, or clinical depressions.

If I sound particularly snarky as I lay out the plot, I shouldn't be.  The movie is marvelously riveting and nobody took a bathroom break despite its length.  You were always afraid you'd miss something. 

As Valjean, Hugh Jackman earns an Oscar nomination and, for once, doesn't sound like Peter Allen.  Russell Crowe plays Javart and his voice, despite some rock band experience, is the weakest of the bunch.  But not by much.

And then there's Anne Hathaway.  Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Fantine and she needs to clear a space on her fireplace mantel right now.  Her one big number is so electrifying that it basically sends all the other nominees home empty-handed.  It's a commanding performance.  Back in the 70s, actress Beatrice Straight was hardly in the movie "Network" but had a three-minute monologue that solidified the Oscar for her.  Hathaway does the same with that one song in "Les Miserables."  It is nothing short of breathtaking.

The other wonderful set piece is the always reliable "Master of the House" number done here by sleazy innkeepers Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen.  They show up to lighten the festivities at a time in the film when things have gotten really dark.  A welcome relief to the ongoing depression the wraps around the other 90 percent of the film.

But, as grim as it is, you are truly uplifted by "Les Miserables."  And I was personally gratified that I finally understood what the heck it was all about.  It has my vote for Best Picture.

Oh, wait, I don't get a vote.  Now I'm really depressed.

Dinner last night:  Chicken saltimbocca at Enzo and Angela.  A wonderful birthday dinner with good friends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What I remember about the Hollywood Bowl version is Brian Stokes Mitchell who has lungs. One of the best singers I've ever seen in person. I wish he was in the movie version.