I Dreamed a Nightmare: The Banal Schmaltz of Les Misérables

The new movie version of Les Misérables is a nonsensical, emotional vampire of a movie. It sucks and sucks and never stops sucking. I knew I was supposed to feel something in this ever-welling sea of emotion, but I didn't know exactly what and I most certainly did not feel a thing. Well, that's not entirely true — I did feel isolated, like I was from a different planet than the people who were moved to repeatedly applaud for actors that couldn't hear them (at a screening full of critics, no less!), and audibly weep at turns so evidently constructed to make them do so that a giant lit up "CRY NOW" sign in the theater would have been redundant.

This will probably be one of those things that the whole country loves, but I do not get. That is fine. It happens. If you are one of the 60 million people who have attended (and, in most cases, enjoyed) a stage production of Victor Hugo's novel set around France's June Rebellion, you too may love this particularly bombastic cinematic take from Tom Hooper (The King's Speech). I have major problems with the modern opera, both in terms of plot and music. Where the former is concerned, though its dozen-or-so main characters spend the entire time singing their emotions, their motivation is rarely apparent beyond making for the most dramatic scenarios. Why the fuck, for example, would unemployed single mom Fantine cut her hair and get her teeth pulled for cash and then become a prostitute? She could have made so much more money as a clean-cut full-package in the film's pack of zombie-whores. Where the music is concerned, sure, there are a few memorable tunes, but far from enough to pad out a bloated production. The concept of a repeating theme is not exclusive to Les Miz – it often comes with the territory – but that doesn't make sitting through these same melodies over and over and over feel like time well spent.

There are a lot of half-songs punctuated by song-songs half-sung, per Hooper's concept, which has his actors singing live as opposed to lip syching to tracks that they already recorded. I do not know the purpose of injecting this kind of naturalism into a show that is otherwise fueled by the broadest expression of the basest emotions. It taints the melodrama, which is a sensibility, by the way, that I adore: one of the most entertaining things a 2012 film had to offer was Sally Field gnawing her words and throwing herself on the floor in an acting tantrum in Lincoln. The pseudo-naturalistic approach amounts to Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) routinely talk-talk-sIIIIIIIIINNNNNGGGGGing, his subway system of forehead veins flaring, and us having to endure Russell Crowe's priest-who-can't-sing delivery. He consistently sounds like he is choking back a yawn or burps.

The camera is wild and awkward, a mess of Dutch angles and tight shots that howl at you, "LOOK HERE AT ALL THIS TALENT." And there is a lot of it – aside from those like Crowe and Eddie Redmayne (as Marius) whose voices are endurance tests – everyone shows up and does their very best with what they are given. But it's to a detrimental extent, actually. Take the composition of Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," which consists of little more than a tight shot on her face as her eyes flicker terror and anguish, her mouth guzzles and spits, her entire presence hyperventilates. It's a show-stopping performance both literally and metaphorically – there is a tremendous amount of craft there that only feels like craft, stopping the show, taking you out of it and having you fixate on this extremely gifted person doing what she does so well. Compare it to the aesthetically similar (down to the sheared hair), infinitely more affecting video for Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," and you get a sense of how bloated and over-the-top things are here. This film plays not so much like an embarrassment of riches, but a punishment of craft.

Movies are false, but this one is shamelessly so while demanding an exhausting amount of empathy from its audience. Opposing forces sing their feelings, creating a maypole out of your heartstrings. The shifting point of view resulting from a revolving stable of despondent characters makes for a manipulative but aimless experience – Les Misérables tells you to feel, feel, feel, but with heroes and villains (except for the invisible ones that are keeping the poor people oppressed) emotionally represented as equals, there's little payoff for your emotional investment. I suppose it could keep you from getting bored while sitting there for almost three hours.

And then, after reveling in misery for so long, the film has the nerve to have all of its dead people sing about a "new tomorrow" during the finale, not because it has earned a happy ending, but because it is the end and a phony happy ending does not seem out of step with the rest of the bullshit.

I ranted for a bit after the movie with the friend that I brought and he pointed out that I was being too rational about things. That makes sense; though I love extreme, over-the-top, melodramatic entertainment, I'm rarely willing to give myself over to it. I like appreciating it for what it is and laughing at a distance. Les Misérables's dour and obvious approach to this kind of entertainment felt banal to me. All those fiery feelings amount to is blandness. Should it be the hit that it seems clearly cut out to be, Les Misérables will be fascinating proof of the endurance of melodrama in a culture that seemed to have given up on it years before. That's an upside I think, even if I'm not clapping and crying along. A reflection of the democracy with which Hooper handles his characters, you are as entitled to their schmaltz as they are.