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“Les Miserables” Has Critical Differences


I tell my students in my media criticism class at Medaille College that the best thing about being a television or movie critic is you are never wrong.

After all, you are just expressing an opinion on something based on some criteria you’ve established over the years. Your opinion may not be with the consensus reviewing the show, but you’re never wrong.

I bring this up after reading many reviews of the current movie “Les Miserables” starring Hugh Jackson, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.

I read them after seeing the movie in New York City. Twice. My oldest son laughed when I told him my girlfriend wanted to see it on Christmas Day when it opened and the next day with several members of her family.

Hugh Jackman

He thought I deserved a medal or something.
A close friend of mine once told me he walked out of the theater production. Another saw it on the top row of a theater in London and didn’t care for it.My point is there are Les Miz people and there are not Les Miz people.

Clearly, my girlfriend is a Les Miz person. My oldest son and my two friends are not.

The reviews proved my theory that you are never wrong was 100 percent accurate.

The USA Today and several other critics raved about the movie because they loved the music and the exceptional visuals in certain scenes.

But there were several other reviews that were less than kind in which critics wrote that the music was  the problem because it wasn’t memorable.

This kind of shocked me. I’ve seen the musical at least five times in New York, London and at Shea’s Buffalo and must have watched the 25th anniversary special carried periodically by Channel 17 during pledge drives at least that number of times. The songs “I Dreamed a Dream,”  “On My Own,” “One Day More,” “Look Down” and “Drink With Me” aren’t memorable?

When reading the reviews after seeing the film, I came to the conclusion that newspapers should have two critics review the film. One could have been done by a movie critic who hasn’t seen the musical on stage and the other by a theater critic who has seen it on stage.

For one thing, I think it is kind of silly for the movie to be reviewed by a movie critic who has said he hates musical theater or any theater and I’ve read a few of those.

For another, movies and musical theater productions are two different animals and critics of each have different expectations and criteria.

Movie critics often aren’t too kind to any musicals. If memory serves me correctly, many critics didn’t love “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Sound of Music” or “Moulin Rouge” (which I loved).

When it comes to this movie version of “Les Miserable,” I’m reminded of how I used to review TV shows before each new television season.

I would have one line or two saying “you’d like this if” and another line or two saying “you’ll hate this if” to give readers an idea of whether a show was their cup of tea.

In the case of “Les Miz,” you’ll like it if you loved the theater production, own the CD, have watched the 25th anniversary special several times and love the story set during the French Revolution about Inspector Javert’s (Crowe) pursuit of Jean Valjean (Jackman), who has redeemed himself since skipping out on parole.

You’ll hate it if you hate musical theater, have a tin ear and nitpick every detail of an operatic production that asks you to suspend disbelief and accept you are watching people sing almost everything rather than talk.

Based on Victor Hugo’s book, it is a story rich in character, romance and symbolism. As popular as the theater production has been in the United States and internationally, the movie version will be seen by multi-millions more than the theatre production and at much less the cost. A good musical these days on Broadway costs more than $100 a pop for a good seat. You can get into the movie for $10 or less.

Needless to say, my girlfriend and her family loved the movie. I expected they would since they came to the theater dressed as characters in the musical. A few family members thought it was the best movie they had ever seen. The audience in New York broke into spontaneous applause after the film ended on both days that I saw it here. I overheard some people say they saw it on Christmas Day and came back to see it again. Apparently, my girlfriend is not alone.

I liked it a lot, too. I would have given it three and a half stars out of four.

But I understood where some of the criticism came from.

Some critics noted the story was relentlessly depressing. My response is it is called “Les Miserables” and not “Les: Bonheur” (happiness). You should know what you are getting into before you take a seat.

Some critics wrote that it felt like it lasted longer than the French Revolution. That’s a good line. It is a little long, but so was the theatrical production.

Jackman is very expressive and does an exceptional job as Valjean. But if you’ve seen the 25th anniversary special on Channel 17, you probably will realize that his singing range doesn’t compare with the voices of all the men who have played Valjean (including Colm Wilkinson, who has a bit part early and late in the movie) in various productions and that criticism is valid.

Crowe has gotten more than his share of criticism. He doesn’t have a Broadway voice, either, but he was much better than I expected him to be.

Director Tom Hooper’s constant use of close-ups got so distracting at times that I wished the screen had been wider.

But there also were some things in the movie that were preferable to the theater production. The major thing is the story is so much easier to follow on screen than it is in the theater. It took me until the third time that I saw the theater production to fully understand what was going on. I had no such problems with the movie.

My best guess is “Les Miz” will be one of those musical movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Sound of Music” in which criticism will fade away over decades until it will eventually be considered a classic.

But then again, I’m a “Les Miz” person.


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6 responses to "“Les Miserables” Has Critical Differences"

  1. Tina says:

    I actually don’t think it is a bad idea for this type of movie to be reviewed by a critic who claims that he hates them. I imagine that they try to go in with an open mind and if it can win them over then it must be an amazing movie and anyone can appreciate great acting, even the toughest critic who hates musicals.

    • Joe says:

      On a radio show I hosted in the NY Metro area, my regular film reviewer was of the opinion that he had to accept a movie as it was and not as how he wished it to be. To criticize a musical because it is a musical, or a comedy because it is trying to be funny, is totally counterproductive for the critic. Rather one should ask questions more in the direction of “Is it well done?” and “Do I find it entertaining? and “Does it seem to accomplish what the director hoped to accomplish?” I believe Mr. Pergament’s approach coincides more with my reviewer’s way of thinking, as well as with my own, than with some of the critics I have read recently.

    • alanp says:

      Sorry Tina. Many don’t go in with an open mind. You are dreaming a dream.

  2. Tina says:

    Oh I absolutely agree with you about that.

    I did read an odd review of “Les Miserables” the other day. The critic had nothing but praise for it but at the end gave it only two and a half stars. I certainly didn’t see that coming at all and couldn’t figure out what he didn’t like about it to only give it that rating because he didn’t give a single clue in his review.

  3. Art says:

    I had a huge laugh when I read Jeff Simon’s review. His last sentence said, “It would have been a great movie if not for the singing” That tells me that he may not be that familiar with the stage play. I immediately thought of Liam Neeson where there was no singing in the talk-only Les Miz. I don’t recall Simon ever praising that performance or even reviewing it. I never went to it because there was no singing.

  4. JonB says:

    I agree with you for the most part, although ultimately I am a “Les Miz” person and I didn’t care for the movie. Specifically, the movie had no sense of staging or cinematic presentation. Was there a single scene or even composition within a scene that was memorable? Not for me. There were some interesting shots (Javert’s feet on the precipice, the chaingang working in the shipyard, Anne Hathaway’s heaving bosom), but In the theatrical production, “Master of House” and “One Day More” are show-stoppers that blow the roof off. In the movie, they are almost inconsequentially paced and claustrophobic (the staging in the play shows how the impending battle is drawing the different characters together; in the film, they stay in their separate spheres during this number and don’t connect until later). Some of the songs were presented so quickly and blandly that it almost seemed as if Hooper was just trying to sprint through the show to keep it under 2.5 hours. And the closeups! Ugh! It’s the first movie musical that almost demands to be seen on the smallest screen possible. It will look great on my ipod!

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