Pretty much every year, there’s a movie in the Best Picture discussion that -- because of your personal taste – you single out and question whether it actually belongs. In past years, the vocal majority has expressed opposition to Oscar nominees like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Blind Side, The Reader and Crash. The last one went on to win the Best Picture trophy.
And so it goes this year with Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, a film that was deemed Oscar worty long before anyone had seen a single frame, for various reasons. Hooper is coming off of The King’s Speech, which won multiple Oscars including Picture, Director and Actor (for Colin Firth). He’s assembled a glittering ensemble of respected Hollywood stars, and is adapting a beloved Broadway musical.
I don’t care for the film. I’m surprised it remains in the Oscar discussion, even after people whose opinions I respect have seen it (our own Katey Rich, for instance, gave it 4-out-of-5 stars in her review). Slowly but surely, though, I’ve found support in the Cinema Blend offices. So with the musical opening in theaters on Christmas Day, Kristy Puchko joined me for a lively conversation about the 10 reasons we were deeply disappointed in Hooper’s Les Miserables. See the film, then see if you agree with what we have to say:
[Editor’s note: This discussion contains spoilers about Hooper’s film adaptation, though the musical Les Miserables has been around since 1980. Still, tread lightly.]
Sean: Kristy, I was so happy to hear in our latest staff meeting that you're baffled by the love being shown to Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. I found it so underwhelming, and am shocked that it continues to find its way into the Oscar conversation. It's ludicrous. This isn't simply an overrated average movie. It's a flat-out bad movie. We've been challenged to come up with 10 reasons why we think Hooper's adaptation of the award-winning stage musical fails. Do you think we can do it? Where should we begin?
Kristy: I think we can do it with ease. But before we rip into why Hooper's Les Mis is such a miss, I want to point out that I am a big admirer of the stage show. I went in knowing all the words to the songs--except for the one they added. Now, I didn't expect this to necessarily top the experience of seeing the stage show. But I was flabbergasted by how much this misses the mark. Like you said, it's not a good movie.
To start our discussion, I think it might be best to address the eyesore that is the cinematography. Because it makes some moments absolutely unwatchable. So, #1: Sloppy cinematography.
Sean: What I find so puzzling about the cinematography is how chintzy I think it looks in the majority of the scenes. I'm not sure if Hooper wanted to maintain the atmosphere of a stage-set musical – because every once in a while, he does allow the action to unfold, as when Jean Valjean treks through mountain passes. But mostly, it's characters trapped on what look like small sets shot with crappy digital cinematography. It cheapens the eventual revolution sequences, and it makes the movie feel more West End than vintage Hollywood.
Kristy: But worse yet, he opted for so much handheld! And because he had the actors sing live -- as opposed to lip-syncing along to prerecorded tracks -- he was committed more than most musical directors to picking the best performance take, and often this means really poorly shot moments making the final cut. There's actually a point where you can see Hugh Jackman bump into the camera! It totally took me out of it.
Sean: Wait, you are taking my first point! #2 - Hooper's extreme close-up don't let the film breathe.
Kristy: It is a suffocating experience. In some scenes it works, but it's such a crutch in this movie.
Sean: Well, it really works for Anne Hathaway's money scene. So many emotions have to dance across her face as she sings "I Dreamed a Dream." The closeness of the camera means we can't turn away, and for a moment, that directorial choice works well. But he keeps using it, and it loses its impact. Completely.
Kristy: I totally agree. And that can lead to problem #3: The movie plummets after Anne Hathaway's exit.
Sean: Oh God, totally. But as a fan of the musical, is that a problem with the show?
Kristy: No, not at all. Actually, I never much cared for Fantine's numbers in the show. I will hand it to Hooper and Hathway. They made for care Fantine in a way I never had before. I normally skip her solo on my soundtrack. In the show, there's such a strong tension between Valjean and Javert that you're mainly pulled in by that. Here, not so much.