Thanks to the success of recent musicals like 2001 Best Picture nominee "Moulin Rouge" and 2002 Best Picture winner "Chicago," more have been making their way to the big screen. However, the latest big-budget extravaganza, a new film adaptation of "Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera," won't be winning any Oscar kudos come February, unless it is for the lavish set design that unsuccessfully masks its dreary demeanor and slow pace.
Director Joel Schumacher ("Batman & Robin," "Phone Booth") is at the helm of this bloated tanker of a film, and right away it drifts off course into schmaltz territory. In a movie so meticulously co-adapted and produced by Lloyd Webber from his own enormously popular 1986 play, though, how much blame can be placed on Schumacher alone?
There is a mysterious figure looming in Paris' Opera Populaire. When a young chorus girl named Christine (Emmy Rossum) is suddenly thrust into a leading role one night, it seems that a darker force lurks behind fate's hand. It is the hand of the Phantom (Gerard Butler), who has secretly taught Christine to sing, while letting her believe he is the ghost of her dead father. When an old childhood friend named Raoul (Patrick Wilson) re-enters her life as the rich benefactor of the opera, the Phantom is consumed by a jealous rage and all are caught up in a predictable and melodramatic triangle.
Schumacher does his best to keep the proceedings lively, with lots of sweeping crane shots featuring extravagant set design. The sumptuous widescreen compositions cram every inch of the frame with colorful detail. But where "Chicago" featured inventive and exuberant dance sequences to complement the songs, "Phantom" is dulled by a lack of any interesting movement whatsoever. One particular scene even has a huge chorus of costumed singers standing still and merely waving some fans in unison. The choreography shows no imagination, and that certainly doesn't help the tedious musical score.
Ah, the music. What is there to say about a piece of work that has sold millions of copies throughout the world and spawned numerous successful stage productions? The same thing you can say about Hootie and the Blowfish. It sucks. The public has never been a great barometer for taste, and Lloyd Webber's dated songs are like goth-lite for the Michael Bolton set. I've heard Meat Loaf albums that aren't as tawdry as these numbers, with their cheesy synthesized bass lines and bombastic crescendos. I don't think there is a 19th-century European opera house out there that wouldn't be appalled to be the setting for the "Top Gun" soundtrack of dated opera musicals.
And where the music fails to engage, the lyrics paint pictures that remind me of high school English class. Lloyd Webber may have actually cribbed these pretentious lyrics from sensitive Dee Copeland, who sat next to me in my junior year: "Softly, deftly, music shall surround you/Feel it, hear it, closing in around you/Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind."
I think she got a B-minus.
But even if the soundtrack to the film is your "Sgt. Pepper's," the rest of the movie still stumbles along miserably, with too many dull scenes of actors slowly walking and sing/talking. It is this quandary that every musical must face, and exactly the kind of thing that "Moulin Rouge" avoided with intrashot movement and unexpected comical wit. On the stage, perhaps one would be entertained by a singer projecting, but onscreen it is a very dull affair.
Matters are not helped by Patrick Wilson, who, as the male romantic lead, acts as wooden as the masked side of the Phantom's face. In a moment meant to be climactic, Wilson charges in on his horse to thankfully interrupt yet another reprise of the tiresome "Angel of Music" theme, and engages the Phantom in a sword fight. While Butler's facial expressions are flashy and broad, Wilson's are as blank as they have been throughout the movie. Additionally, thanks to the flashback structure of the story, the fight holds no drama whatsoever.
Even though this takes place an hour and a half into the film, "Phantom" still has another 50 minutes left. By this time, Butler is barking and growling more than singing, and the audience is dragged "Down once more to the dungeon of my black despair! / Down we plunge to the prison of my mind! / Down that path into darkness deep as hell!"
After being beaten in an unpleasantly grandiose fashion for 143 minutes, I was never happier to see the sunlight.