Merciless critics lead the 'Les Mis' rebellion
Posted January 24, 2013
Les Misérables is much more than just the feel-sad movie of the Oscar season.
Not that the best-picture contender, the first musical to compete in the category since 2002's Chicago, doesn't live up to its name.
Consider that much of the story based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel is devoted to chronicling the pitiful state of the impoverished masses in 19th-century France through the redemptive actions of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the ex-convict who served 19 years for merely stealing a loaf of bread.
Meanwhile, four major characters die during the course of its 157 minutes, along with sundry student revolutionaries sacrificing themselves for a lost cause, all the while singing in close-up and live on camera without the artifice of lip-syncing.
But Les Mis also has earned the reputation as the feel-hate film of the year. Judging by their published vitriol, a number of notable pundits who experienced the big-screen version of Broadway's 1987 Tony winner leave the dark of the theater fairly frothing with anger, disgust, repulsion and, yes, hate.
One of the most-read expressions of post-Les Mis stress disorder on the Internet comes courtesy of Matt Walsh. At least the blog entry by the Lexington, Ky., talk-radio host - which bears the telling headline "Les Misérables taught me how to hate again" - manages to be funny while lacerating the object of his scorn.
A sampling: "Les Misérables will stand forever as the most miserable cinematic experience I've ever suffered through. And this coming from a guy who saw Christmas With the Kranks in theaters, so that should tell you something."
But the king of Les Mis-anthropy has to be David Denby of The New Yorker, whose online screed reeks of condescension in its very title: "There's still hope for people who love Les Mis."
For him, the movie is akin to a cinematic Black Plague. Having never bothered to inoculate himself against the possibility of cultural cooties by attending a stage show that more than 60 million worldwide have seen, his first exposure to an adaptation was the film version, and it apparently sickened him to his core.
"The movie is not just bad," Denby brayed. "It's terrible. It's dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive. I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theater, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers."
Mind you, these scoffing scribes and their ilk do not represent a majority opinion, given that Les Mis has gathered eight Oscar nominations and three Golden Globe wins. In fact, most critics lean toward the positive, judging by the 70% thumbs-up score on the review-tracking website Rottentomatoes.com.
As for the box office, it has proven strong - $132 million domestic and $283 million worldwide - and fairly steady ever since the $61 million production opened a month ago. Even the soundtrack is a hit, now sitting at No. 6 on the Billboard chart after topping the list for three weeks.
"There is every indication that we have a lot of returning customers for repeat viewings," says Michael Moses, co-president of marketing for Universal, the studio behind Les Mis. "We have witnessed firsthand since the earliest screenings how powerfully it connects to people. There are tears, applause, even standing ovations."
Industry professionals aren't immune to the emotional tsunami that is Les Mis. Reports of tears and applause at their screenings are common as well. That includes special showings for the Directors Guild of America (Tom Hooper, who was snubbed by Oscar voters for his direction, is in the running for the DGA's top honor on Feb. 2). The Screen Actors Guild, whose ceremony is Sunday, has the cast competing for its biggest prize, best ensemble.
Scores of celebrities, some with still-damp eyes, have taken to Twitter to express their rapturous seals of approval, including Katie Couric, Ellen Page, Jon Favreau, Larry King and Zach Braff (who wrote, "If crying 3 times during a movie musical is wrong, I don't wanna be right").
Such widespread acceptance serves only to inflame the Les Mis detractors. The harder the public embraces the movie, the louder they bellow. Much like Russell Crowe's uncompromising Inspector Javert, the self-righteous pursuer of Jackman's parole-breaking Valjean, they have railed against the movie with such intense loathing that you might think it was more torturous than the waterboarding depicted in Zero Dark Thirty.
The wails took awhile to build to a full crescendo. Less harsh though still disparaging reviews, including those in The Hollywood Reporter("a battle against musical diarrhea") and New York magazine ("tasteless bombardment"), appeared before the movie arrived on Christmas. It had the audacity to lead the box-office tallies that day with a gross of $18 million - the best opening ever for a musical.
The New York Times initially ran an evenhanded though mixed review by Manohla Dargis, who mostly kept unbridled contempt at bay while joining the chorus of praise for Anne Hathaway's performance as tragic prostitute Fantine. But then theater critic Charles Isherwood felt compelled to chime in with a column in which he confessed to falling asleep during his first attempt to see the film, forcing him to go back again.
The second go-round only worsened his mood. "Should you, too, find yourself drifting off to dreamland at some point, rest assured that upon waking, you will find that someone is singing, and someone is suffering. Usually it's the same person, with a tear- or sweat-stained face stretched across the screen so that no nuance of misery will go unrecorded."
But the real fun began as The New Yorker suddenly decided to become Ground Zero for Les Mis abuse. Besides killjoy Denby, fellow critic Anthony Lane was his usual waggish self as he let loose with his slams in the magazine's print edition: "Fans of the original production, no doubt, will eat the movie up, and good luck to them. I screamed a scream as time went by."
Cameron Mackintosh, one of the most successful theatrical impresarios in history and proudly guilty of exposing the world to Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, has heard this type of nasty naysaying before as producer of Les Mis both on stage and screen.
"The French critics hated the novel 150 years ago when it was first published in Belgium," he notes, "but Parisians bought it in wheelbarrow loads." When the stage version premiered in London's West End in 1985, "the critics didn't get it early. But the public did. It's always been the 'people's musical.' The subject is about them, not the intellectuals who think they know better and can't cope with the fact that the great Victor Hugo is talking directly to and in support of ordinary people against the social structure of its time."
What is it about Les Mis, whose emblem should apparently be a bull's-eye instead of that doll-faced child of constant sorrow, that incites such intense negativity?
"Film criticism is so heavily dominated by men that it is sometimes plagued by a flood of testosterone," says Tom O'Neil, editor of awards website GoldDerby.com and an unabashed supporter of Les Mis. "In the case of musicals, they often emerge from the bushes like playground bullies to beat up the glee club. They can't just say they don't like Les Mis for this or that reason. They have to hurl nuclear weapons at it."
Says Adam Feldman, theater critic for Time Out New York and president of the New York Drama Critics Circle: "The film version of Les Misérables is unabashed about its musicality, sincerity and sentiment. There is nothing in quotation marks. While it is very risky to go with that, it also can be very moving. It tells its story in a form that is very dramatically and musically direct, and it can make some people uncomfortable."
It could just be that the dissenters sneer all the harder because the public doesn't give a sniff about their disdain. The only thing that critics hate more than Les Mis? Being ignored.
"People like being moved by the generosity that the suffering of others invokes in them," says Feldman. "And Les Misérables does do that. It's not Wagner. But Wagner wouldn't sell a ticket."
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