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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Excess: Return to Ebert's Brain Tumor

M is out of town, so I decided that I'd rent a couple of movies that he'd probably rather not watch, but I might not mind spending a couple of bucks on. Last night's fare was Joel Schumacher's Andrew Lloyd Webber's Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera. It was bad. REALLY bad.

I'd like to make it clear that I am in no way trying to defend ALW or the stage version of PTO. I have a soft spot for it, as it was one of my first big musicals, and it's a very cool piece to see staged. But it's indifferent music based on a lousy (really, trust me) novel. Congratulations, Mr. Schumacher, on finding a lower place.

It's tempting to begin at the beginning and keep going, but I'll never get through. I do have to start at the auction, however, and wonder what good anti-aging shit Madame Giry had been getting from the Phantom. Miranda Richardson is 15 years older than Patrick Wilson, and 28 years older than Emmy Rossum. Let's review the standings at the auction scene: Emmy's dead; Patrick is being pushed about in FDR's chair; and Miranda (whose inclusion in this scene is utterly random) is still on her ballet-crippled feet. Maybe it's the lone French accent in the entire movie keeping her young. Or perhaps the answer is in her lousy age make-up. She does seem to have been aging in rings of pancake instead of in the normal way.

The auction scene is in sepia, and there's a half hearted attempt to outdo the raising of the chandelier by colorizing and bringing to life the whole opera house in a series of endless, nausea-inducing shots. And just in case the visual excitement of the arrival in Oz isn't enough to satisfy, there's a relentless wind foley through the whole thing, which appears to be providing valuable nipple-erection services for naked column lady after naked column lady. (Seriously, I'm pretty sure every individual marble nipple from every individual column gets loving attention.)

I admit that he won me back a little bit in the latter stages of an overture that has never seemed so endless. There's a lot of inclusion of backstage debauchery and some very cool shots of vintage theatre equipment. It even seemed, at the time, to serve the purpose of setting up the sheer complexity of a giant theatre like this, so one would have a sense that the Phantom would be able to move pretty easily through the confusion and set up many of his tricks. And at least once, Schumacher does seem to remember that he could work with that, but he strongly prefers the Batcave of which a revival of taste and good sense deprived him after Batman & Robin, and so character after character traipses down the hallway to get to the least secret lair in Paris. Perhaps Schumacher realized that this hallway was the only frightening place in his movie. (Though not for the reasons he thinks: His creepy, apparently mobile candelabras look like a baby's arm holding an apple. In fact, I'm not sure that many babies [or porn stars] weren't enslaved to wobble the candles.)

And on the subject of the lair, I wonder at the difficulty of keeping all those candles burning in such a damp environment with a mysterious underground wind (yes, the wind foley. never. stops.). Also, for a guy with self-esteem issues, he has a metric buttload of mirrors around the place. Oh, and Joel? The spare masks strapped to busts of Classically beautiful boys is not heart-rendingly ironic, it's just . . . funny. Furthermore, you might think that no one would catch you on stealing the Phoenix bed design from Phantom of the Paradise, but as I was already longing for that piece of comparative film genius by this point, I noticed. I am gratified to note, though, that not even the Phantom can resist dioramas.

I think Schumacher really just hates the idea of making a movie musical. There's no coherence at all to the staging or the POV. He loves to do crane shots to give a sense of a height of the opera house, and that takes you out of the feeling of being in a theatre audience (and it might seem like you're supposed to be watching from the Phantom's POV, but no, he just really loves crane shots). That's totally fair enough. It's a movie, it doesn't need to be bound by stage conventions. But then he uses ostentatiously theatrical lighting tricks, then inserts a green-screen flashback behind Meg and Christine while they're chatting against a very flat, very theatrical set. It's conceptually nutty and visually unappealing---the worst of film and stage all rolled into one.

There are a few lyric changes, which is not a problem by itself, but either the lip-synching is that bad or they filmed the original lyrics and changed them later (really, there are a shocking number of places with pretty obvious fuck-ups where they just didn't bother to reshoot). He also has a hate-on for recitative, much of which he's opted to do as spoken dialogue, despite the fact that it rhymes and has decidedly odd word choice designed to give it the correct meter. It's grating for someone who knows the musical and must sound stilted and mannered for those who don't. That hearkens back to the fact that he never seems to have decided what he was doing.

Was the movie meant to expose the Phantom's tricks to us and let the audience see the wires? If so, just how stupid is Christine? Why, exactly, do these people sing sometimes and have "normal" conversations at other times? What's going on between Christine and the coachman that she stays in her nightie to go outside and tell him her destination, THEN goes back in to change into a mourning gown, thus allowing the Phantom the opportunity to clock him and take his place? Why is this the one person that the Phantom disables, rather than killing? Could it be that the idea of Patrick Wilson barebacking was just too much for our direction to resist? And why is Christine's pauper artiste daddy buried in the biggest mausoleum in the county?

Why does Emmy Rossum start out with perfectly reasonable long, beautiful curls and end up wearing Dustin Hoffman's wig from Hook by the time she reaches the lair? Can we blame the mysterious wind foley? And apropos hair, did the Phantom run out of Dapper Dan, Grecian Formula, and Mane and Tail during his three-month hiatus? Because he starts out with a full head of black hair, but then develops an homage to Lon Chaney in the third act. Why must you inflict 10 minutes of one of the masqueraders doing the robot on us? Why does Christine think that the best place to hide her secret engagement ring (which Raoul clearly won playing skeeball) is in her cleavage? Also, making a big deal about the secretness of your engagement and then macking on each other on the dance floor? Very stealthy. And why is the Phantom so moved by her giving him back ANOTHER GUY'S RING, WHICH HE STOLE IN THE FIRST PLACE? And where, exactly, does one stable a horse within the Paris sewers and why?

The biggest shame is that most of the cast really deserves better. Emmy Rossum has a beautiful voice and one day I think she'll really be able to act (she was actually quite good in Songcatcher), but Schumacher evidently emits powerful talent-sucking forces. I don't think she closes her mouth once in however many minutes (many too many) and her accent is all over the place. Patrick Wilson does a nice job as Raoul, which is a completely thankless role, and he's vocally better suited to the supposed romantic lead than Steve Barton, whose voice was particularly ill-chosen given that he was playing against Michael Crawford's Phantom. Lest he bring any enjoyment to the film, though, Schumacher saddles him with hair so ridiculous is defies description. Miranda Richardson is, of course, wonderful, and I appreciate that she does her own singing, but her lack of vocal power is a liability, given that she really only sings during the really complex group pieces. Minnie Driver is funny and over-the-top, but one wonders if they couldn't have found a genuine diva, rather than dubbing her. I guess that's as hard as finding a genuinely Puerto Rican singer to play Maria . . .

The big hole in the casting? Well, you might have noticed that there's no praise up there for the titular character. Oh. My. God. Gerard Butler is bad. Like Antonio-Banderas-as-Che bad. Gloria-Grahame-as-Ado-Annie bad. Brando-as-Sky-Masterson bad. BAD. Now, I don't think Michael Crawford is the definitive anything. Oh, I tell a lie. He is the definitive Cornelius Hackl, accept no substitutes. But, really, he's incompetent at everything. Who would have believed that it would be possible to be too much of a scenery chewer as the fucking Phantom of the Opera? Who knew that Michael Crawford swooping waaaaay up to the high note in Music of the Night would be preferrable to grabbing Butler's balls real tight at the appropriate moment?

Ebert loved this. Well, no, he hated the musical, the music, and everything else about the source material. But he loved Schumacher's vision. I can only assume that Schumacher makes great sandwiches or has something else that Ebert really wants, because this was Teh Suck.

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