Sorry, But This Film Made Me ‘Miserables’

Lesmiserables_1900_valjean_rescues_MariusOkay, I’ll admit right up front I am, generally speaking, not a fan of musicals (neither the Broadway nor movie variety). I sheepishly shared the sentiments of columnist Mark Tapson who, on his Facebook page, posted enthusiasm about Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables receiving the silver-screen treatment while conceding he was bummed it was going to be a musical. And yes, Tapson’s social-site confession brought me a soupçon of relief — he’s a cultured, Hollywood screenwriter, after all, and even he was admitting a reflexive distaste for hours of people singing their way through a storyline. 

Whew — maybe I’m not a complete philistine!

Sure, a smattering of vocal performances within a production doesn’t automatically ruin it for me by itself. I dig the medium of cinema; I love music; occasionally they can be married effectively in the “musical” genre. I enjoyed Yentl and West Side Story, for instance; and I’m an unapologetic fan of the occasional Elvis flick (Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream are worthy, if shamelessly corny, examples.) A film that tells a story through dialogue, action, etc., tossing in a few songs to spice it up? That I can handle. 

What I can’t take? A story rendered wholly, or overwhelmingly, via thespians warbling to one another. For two and a half hours. In other words, the newly released Les Miserables; which, essentially, rendered me one of them — ie, the “Miserable Ones” — for most of it’s running time. 

Musical passages as interlude? Tolerable. Musical passages as interminable? Not so much.

I suppose I’ve only myself to blame: A number of people (a contemplative power-lifter I recently met, one of my local Dunkin’ Donuts compadres and my mother (!!) urged me, rather pointedly: Stay away from Les Mis!

On the other hand, my dad (a fellow Clash Daily contributor) deemed it watchable (although, he asserted, afflicted with too much song). My former-Michigan-State-Lacrosse-starter/football-fanatic/guy’s-guy youngest brother raved about it. Another Clash Daily columnist, Audrey Russo, gushed to me about it, as well. 

So I found myself conflicted — but curious. I’ve heard paeans to Les Miserables (stage musical) for years (decades?). A part of me wondered: exactly why all the artistic hub-bub? Plus — and this is a biggee — my wife wanted to see it; and I’m all for “investing” in my marriage. 

Hence, last night, off to one of our local cineplexes.

The good news? We’d come armed with a buy-one/get-one free coupon, so I feel like I only threw away the price of one ticket. 

Forty-minutes into this extravaganza’s NON-STOP, sometimes but not always skillful, serenading, I started squirming. I sensed my wife was probably even more restless than I at that juncture. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” she muttered mordantly.

EbcosetteBy the hour-and-a-half mark, I was well into aggravation toward Mssr. Hugo’s colorfully memorable, but unrelentingly sing-songy, characters. Please, SHUT UP AND JUST TALK to one another, already!

Shortly thereafter, it was an act of will (with, I’ll concede, a skoche of interest in how they’d wrap things up) that kept the missus and me in our seats. When the picture finally faded to credits, I’m sorry, but I leaned forward, head down, thanking God it was over. 

Mind you, I’ve read Hugo’s monumental classic. At  well over a thousand pages, it presents a daunting, literary challenge — but Les Miserables the novel also yields a soaring, grippingly-crafted tale of grace, forgiveness, redemption, piety, and love.

Its Bishop Myriel is NOT a pedophile. In fact, he’s a luminous portrait of mercy and genuine devotion to Christ; one of the epic’s most admirable players. Christian faith and imagery play a lynchpin role in its twisting narrative. Inspector Javert provides storytelling drama with one of the most riveting bad-guys of all time.

Yet, most of that evaporated for me under the labor of this tedious, 157 minute musical-stage-show-cum-cinema. I did find its final five minutes somewhat poignant; by then, however, I was so eager to escape the theater the movie was beyond rescue. 

My father had mentioned to me the film featured few, great songs. Turns out, he was way too generous . Les Mis‘s compositions? Gratingly unmelodious — more tuneless chants than proper singing much of the time; utterly forgettable to my ear, although Hugh Jackman (“Jean Valjean”) and Anne Hathaway (“Fantine”) demonstrate they can carry a tune. 

Russel Crowe, on the other hand, does not. He’s probably my favorite actor, his Gladiator  my favorite movie (a dozen years after it’s release, its themes of male friendship, love of family, personal honor and heavenly-mindedness still enchant me.) And the Aussie’s pipes doubtless served adequately during his tenure with “30 Odd Foot of Grunts” (his erstwhile rock band). But in Les Mis, Crowe’s thin baritone falters worse than Javert into the Seine. 

The production boasts competent acting throughout, in spots noteworthy. Its opening sequence is visually breathtaking. The film looks good, certainly. But that remorseless, too frequently droneful, dueting and crooning? Too much for me.  

I feel badly saying all this. As a Christian, I thrill at the unapologetically biblical themes celebrated in Les Miserables. Our scrofulous culture inarguably would benefit from more popular entertainment like this film — albeit with fewer and better songs.

And those who love musicals probably ought to check it out, anyway — they’ll likely find my comments wildly wide of the aesthetic mark. 

For those, however, who, like I, can’t long abide grown-ups launching into full, Broadway-songster mode at the drop of every chapeau? I’d suggest Lincoln or The Hobbit or Zero-Dark-Thirty; all films where folks major in that quaint, old-fashioned art called “speaking“. 

Image: Valjean and Marius in the sewers; source: Les Miserables, 1900 US edition; author: Mead Schaeffer; public domain/copyright expired

Lower Image: Young Cosette sweeping; 1886 engraving for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; author: Émile Bayard (1837–1891)

About the author: Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and managing editor of ClashDaily.com

View all articles by Steve Pauwels
  • 4joachim

    The movie was marvelous. Song characters capture the flavor of the presentation delivering an innovative treat. Emotions will be lived with each character up close and personal rather than just admired on stage from afar. It’s worth the price of the ticket and then some. Great Performances All!

  • Myptofvu

    Movie was good I think the author and wife need to stick to Iron man or xmen movies if they require constant stimulation. Like the play it sped through some character build up scenes too quickly but showed great use of license elsewhere. Personally I didn’t care for how Val Jean was portrayed, too much frailty of man and not enough heroism. Anne Hathaways Golden Globe Award unmerited. Only standout performance was probably Sasha Cohen’s.

    • sjplwc

      Since you brought it up: the Iron Man flicks were both great. Particularly number one. X-Men movies have all faltered for me. In my book, The Avengers was the best movie of 2012 — exuberant film making in every way. However, I loved Lincoln as well (as cinema, not so much as history.) And I l appreciate an “artsy-fartsy” flick as much as the next guy, too. All the major Jane Austen releases, for instance, (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, etc.) are among my favorite movies. Still, as I note, musicals, per se, are not my cup of tea and I apologize for nothing concerning that. A truly great, well-executed musical might work for me but, by my lights, this one wasn’t one of ‘em.

  • peggy

    This was opera on film, for Pete’s sake….it is SUPPOSED to be all singing….and yes I agree some were not as capable of singing the part as others, but all in all, it was CULTURE and I appreciated it….and I am NOT an opera fan. I dare anyone to get in front of a camera and sing any of those numbers live….(BTW, all numbers were filmed singing live, no voice overs or do overs)

    • gman2

      Hey Peggy if you pay me what they made I’d get in front of the camera anyday.

    • sjplwc

      That’s why I don’t go to the opera. :o) Most of the vocals in Les Mis were decent, I’ll concede. I’m not implying what the players did was easy — just that it didn’t work for me, at all. My wife heard the “live singing” claim was true, except for the opening (admittedly visually impressive) sequence. The splashing waves reportedly made it impossible to record vocals there.

  • Gray Ghost (Mississippi)

    As the “loyal opposition concerning musicals” Mr. Pauwels, I disagree. My wife and I enjoyed “Les Miserables”, seeing it about a week ago. My wife and daughter love the broadway play; and my daughter played Eponine in her high school senior play.

    I do agree with you that the book (at over 1500 pages) is a great read (Although I enjoyed Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” even more.).

  • Mo86

    Not everyone likes everything. That is fine. We’re all different, with different tastes. But why would anyone go to this movie knowing that musicals are not their thing, only to post a review doing nothing but complaining about it all?

    If your wife wanted to go, she could’ve gone with someone else. Or better yet, do what I and tons of singles are forced to do – GO ALONE.

    “What I can’t take? A story rendered wholly, or overwhelmingly, via thespians warbling to one another. For two and a half hours.”

    Huh? On the personal level, I loved that they chose to do it that way because talking in musicals usually takes me out of the moment. I was thrilled it was all singing! But my personal preferences asides, in general, that’s what a musical is. And especially this one!

    I stopped reading at the “Russell Crowe can’t sing” bit. I’m a wannabe singer and have been taking lessons for years. Nothing annoys me more than a bad singer. So I kept hearing this about Crowe and was cringing in preparation. There was no need. He did a great job. I haven’t the slightest idea what people continue to crab about.

    This was a beautifully done film that portrayed themes like grace and forgiveness (and the lack thereof) in a powerful way. But for someone who claims that there can be such a thing as “too much music/singing”, it’s not the movie for you.

    • sjplwc

      Mo86: as I mentioned, I went with my wife to spend some time with her. And we did share an experience together: we both didn’t enjoy this movie at all. Have to say, I know tastes differ, but your insistence that Russel Crowe’s vocal performance was a “great job” is a tad shocking to me. As I said, he’s the bomb for me as an actor. Three of his films are among my all time favorites (Gladiator, Master and Commander and Cinderella Man). But I think he fell short here. I agree, the story itself is masterful — a shame so many will NOT experience it , or will see it and miss the point, because they have no desire to have it presented in song alone.

      • Mo86

        I tried to love ‘Gladiator’ because everyone does, and I couldn’t! So, I guess to each his own.

        • sjplwc

          Actually, Robert Ebert trashed it (Gladiator) so you’re in good company with him (at least when it comes to film criticism.) Dixie Whately was co-hosting with him that week and I’ll never forget their exchange — she took pretty sharp exception with him. It’s one of the few times I have forcefully disagreed with Ebert about a movie — although I usually take issue with him on most other things.

          • Mo86

            I do want to give it another try sometime!

  • Dale Netherton

    I saw Les Miserables on opening day ( Christmas ) to a packed house where everyone sat mesmerized by the grandiose presentation. You will never see a more passionate rendition than Ann Hathaway. Admit it…you fell asleep.

    • sjplwc

      No, I made myself stay awake. Trust me, I was tempted not to. One of the guys I talked to moved to the front row, stretched out and snoozed through almost all of it — expensive nap!. His wife liked it though!

  • BlueViolets

    It’s all a matter of personal taste. Which is why when people tell me I HAVE to see it that I studiously avoid it. I’ve wasted far too much money watching movies I wouldn’t even have watched for free and left me wishing I would have spent the money on a good book instead. All because I took someones’ word that is was a must see. At least if I wait till it makes cable I can watch it for free and don’t feel bad turning it off after the first 5 minutes to do something worthwhile.

  • willhen50

    Les Miserables was filled with a lot of historical inaccuracies, it couldn’t even stay in continuity. Then there was a lot of problems with equipment showing up at inapproriate times. I recognized one song “I dreamed the dream” and Ann Hathaway wrecked it.

  • $39132868

    Do you like opera?

    • sjplwc

      From the little exposure I’ve had to it, no.

  • jam24u

    I started to watch it. Realized that the majority of pro’s about this feature was decided upon before they ever got into the movie. Kinda like all the support for WarHorse and Hugo. Best manly musical was “Paint your Wagon”. original and clever. Not a remake of the current liberal trends

  • justabill61

    So you didn’t like The Wizard Of Oz? that’s a musical film!

    • sjplwc

      Actually, I didn’t. Not because of the singing, though, just not a film that I’m crazy about.The Sound of Music would be an example of a movie musical I enjoyed. Note: a strong story, leavened with (not dominated by) good songs.Also liked Fiddler on the Roof (from what I can remember; I saw it twenty years ago, only one time.)

  • Eddie G.

    I haven’t seen it and don’t care to. The cast members are not suitable for musical roles. If it’s to be a musical production,then use musical talent. Sound of Music is a bio pic but had superb accomplished vocalists doing the singing. Les Mis I can gather could’ve used the same treatment. Storytelling can be done musically but it requires vocals by tenors, basses,baritones,and sopranos, and not actors who hope to hell they can sing for their paycheck.

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