Thursday, January 17, 2013

Column: One man’s hit is another man’s ‘Les Mis’

If you’re a card-carrying male person, you know there are only three kinds of Hugh Jackman movies that are acceptable for you to see:

1) Movies in which he slashes evil mutants with his adamantium metal claws;

2) Movies in which he kills vampires with a giant crossbow;

3) See No. 1.

Not included on that list, you’ll notice, are movies in which he spends hours singing into the camera at such an immediate distance that it’s impossible not to notice his unkempt nostril hairs. (Or dapper graying curls, depending on whether at that moment he’s a starving parole breaker or an aging reclusive single father, or possibly the mayor. I lost track somewhere in there.)

I’m referring of course to the movie adaptation of “Les Miserables,” in which Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean is basically singing the entire time, whether he’s dragging ships to shore, running his factory or visiting Anne Hathaway in France’s dingiest hospital, where she’s dying in a teary-eyed, short-haired kind of way. Fortunately for Jean Valjean, everyone around him is also singing (even Russell Crowe!) so none of this seems out of the ordinary.

Now you might think I went to see this film because my lovely wife dragged me there, but I actually went because I just happen to be a fan of “Les Miserables” – I’ve seen the musical three times, and I dare say that I even find it, well, stirring. Yes, I know that may call into question my masculinity and my artistic preferences, not to mention indicating an unusually high tolerance for bombast.

I first saw “Les Miserables” in Boston when I was in college for the same reason that college students do everything – because I could get discount tickets. (No, not because I was drunk – if that were the case, I would have gone to “Cats.”) It didn’t take me long to realize that not only did Les Mis have a pretty compelling story, but it was just epic enough to truly lend itself to full-throated warbling. Plus, muskets!

Not that I’m a full Les Mis apologist. There are a few things I’ve found off-putting about the musical to this day, including:

1) Marius. He’s a drip, what with all his love-at-first-sight gushing when he should be figuring out how to load his musket. Of course, that makes him a perfect match for Cosette – together they make the drippiest couple in musical theater history, and that includes Emile and Nellie in “South Pacific.” (Er … I had discount tickets!)

2) I can’t figure out the math – every time I add it up Valjean comes out to be about 200 years old, and yet he can still carry grown men through sewers for days on end. (Although the next day he wakes up and can’t lift his valise, and 20 minutes later, spoiler alert, he’s dead, so there you go.)

3) Let’s face it, it’s a lot of fuss over bread.

Still, it’s pretty gripping for a musical, and I can’t really imagine a way the movie could have done a better job adapting it. Jackman has this uncanny ability to project an inner sincerity, even when he’s slashing mutants, so he’s an ideal Valjean. And Hathaway is certainly good at conveying “distraught” – she generates more close-up actual tears than all the other actors put together. Although it was admittedly pretty close.

As for Crowe, he’s not the greatest singer in the world, but he does a nice job projecting the sense that if you didn’t fully appreciate his performance he might reach through the screen and smolder you to death. It’s a lot better than Clint Eastwood’s singing in “Paint Your Wagon,” which, spoiler alert, is exactly how you’d imagine Clint Eastwood’s singing.

Regardless, though, I’d argue that even if “Les Miserables” is flawed, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the sweeping story of redemption and the soaring (if bombastic) music that goes along with it. I challenge even the most manly audience members, the ones who thought Liam Neeson was too wishy-washy in the “Taken” movies, to listen to Valjean and company sing “One Day More” and not feel at least a little bit stirred.
And don’t worry: If it makes you uncomfortable, you can just close your eyes and think about crossbows.

No comments: