Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (review)

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Broadway Folly

As you might expect, a movie ostentatiously labeled “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s” anything isn’t going to stray too far from its theatrical source. And so, unsurprisingly, if you love the Broadway extravaganza with the crashing chandelier and the flaming gaslamps and the overpriced souvenir T-shirts and the snowglobes with the Phantom’s white mask sitting on fake black velvet, you’ll love Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. For it is indeed a cheesy snowglobe of a movie, pretty and tinkly, with tinny windup music. This is a movie that raccoons will steal to weave into their nests, it’s that ooh-ahh sparkly-shiny.
If, on the other hand, you consider the Broadway extravaganza nothing more than a theme-park ride for unsophisticated tourists who mistake spectacle for drama and want to see stuff blow up real good if they’re gonna shell out $125 a pop, an insult to centuries-long theatrical traditions and poisoned, to boot, by music that’s awful and repetitious but so insidiously, evilly catchy that you CANNOT GET IT OUT OF YOUR HEAD, EVER… well, then, you’ll feel the same way about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

But you knew that already.

It’s a good thing Gaston Leroux is dead, because this movie adaptation of his 1911 novel would have killed him (if the stage production hadn’t already, of course). “Where is the sexy danger?” Leroux would ask with his French accent that almost no one has here, even though this is supposed to be Paris. “Where is the seduction?” Not here, even if Gerard Butler as the Phantom is trying, though I may be projecting a bit because Butler makes my toes curl in the most delicious way. Butler actually has got a lot of talent (which everyone will see if the wonderful Scottish film Dear Frankie ever gets released) despite getting stuck mostly in crappy movies like this one and Timeline and Lara Croft’s Boobs 2, and he can exude dark, bad-guy appeal with the best of ’em. But he might as well be singing to deaf people, for all the effect his twisted glamour has here.

Yeah, the Phantom is a total nutball, skulking around the subterranean caverns under the Paris Opera House, tutoring budding singer Christine from the shadows, cuz he’s a musical genius, see? She’s a bit dim and thinks it’s the “angel of music” who’s guiding her, but still, she’s supposed to be irresistibly drawn to him, and who wouldn’t be? He dresses in black, has his own underground lair, even has his own theme music, excruciatingly insipid as it may be. The problem is — and this may be my favorite bad thing about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera — that Christine is played by Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow, Mystic River), whose completely immobile plastic face just doesn’t move, not at all, not ever. Surely director Joel Schumacher (Veronica Guerin, Phone Booth) didn’t set out to make a theme-park movie… did he? But why else cast a Disney animatron as your leading lady?

I mean, sure, if you intend to make a safe, bland, boring, thoroughly desexualized movie, then you will want to go ahead with the Emmy Rossum plan, make sure you get an actress who cannot emote and so comes across as a fickle, shallow little bint, who swoons in the glow of the Phantom’s attentions (because it says to do that in the script!) and then, when she can’t deal with a little scar tissue even on the Angel of Music, decides that she prefers her own plastic people and runs into the arms of opera patron Robot– er, Raoul (Patrick Wilson: The Alamo), who doesn’t even have his own theme music or anything. I mean sure, if you’re trying to avoid upsetting folk at a time in which a large portion of the public would rather sex didn’t exist, that male/female interaction be limited to chaste chaperoned ice-cream socials, then you certainly do not want to go the other route, in which a ravishing and womanly Christine is seriously tempted by a tantalizingly virile Phantom and almost gets actually corrupted before she decides that his tendency toward homicidal mania may be the thing that will ruin the relationship down the road and so turns reluctantly to white-bread Raoul, whom she will regard with some pity as the long years of their dull marriage increasingly make her regret the excitement she gave up. Cuz with a petulant and childish Christine and a Phantom who looks like he wants to break out and be all dangerous and sexy if only the movie would let him and a Raoul who has nothing to recommend him except that he isn’t the Phantom, what you get is a Precious Moments horror movie. But maybe that’s what Schumacher was shooting for.

But then other questions arise, most prominently: Why cast Butler if you’re not gonna let him do what he can do? Even I have to admit from within my lust-crazed daze that he hasn’t got much of a singing voice, or if he does, there’s no evidence of it here. For me, “the power of the music of the night” is that it drives me out of my skull, but surely the people who like Precious Moments horror movies and theme-park theater want to hear these tunes — I mean tune, singular: it’s the same one over and over and over and over — and their laughably obvious lyrics (“Open your mind / Let your fantasies unwind”) performed by decent singers. Why on earth would you let Minnie Driver (Ella Enchanted, An Ideal Husband), as the diva Carlotta, or Ciarán Hinds (The Statement, The Mayor of Casterbridge) or Simon Callow (Christmas Carol: The Movie, No Man’s Land), as the opera-house owners, sing? It’s an insult to chalk-on-a-board to call it chalk-on-a-board when they croon.

Really, the only honest reaction to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is to misquote George Hamilton in Love at First Bite: Music of the night, shut up!

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