Les Miz: One Vulcan’s Perspective

Saw Les Miserables tonight. I commend it to you as a very well-produced piece of cinema. Top-notch performances, beautiful singing voices (except for Russell Crowe, although he was more adequate than I was led to believe) and a revelation from Ann Hathaway, who demonstrates in a single three-minute shot that she is the most talented actress working in movies today. What other actress can play light comedy a la Princess Diaries, move on to sultry menace in The Dark Knight Rises, and then deliver a performance of unparalleled pathos that dominates a two-and-a-half-hour film long after her character dies? A remarkable talent, that one.

But here’s my problem. As I watched this, I certainly appreciated all the skill and artistry on display, but, inexplicably, I never once found myself emotionally invested in the goings on. As Ann Hathaway delivered her stunning star turn, all I could think was, “Golly, that Ann Hathaway, she’s really, really good at this.” I never once thought, “Oh, Fontine! Your suffering moves me so! Does anyone have a hankie?”

I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me. I think I’m part Vulcan.

I was an actor once. I grew up immersed in musical theatre, so it surprises me how little patience I now have for it. I always find myself deconstructing it while it’s happening. I ask myself if these people know they’re singing. Do they live in a universe where orchestral music rises up out of the ether to accompany their swelling emotions? If they were to meet each other in the street the next day, would they say, “Remember when you sang that song of undying love to me?” Or would they just sing a new song, or reprise the old one? Do they sing while they brush their teeth? It’s such a strangely artificial world these people live in, and it bears only a passing resemblance to mine.

It’s also something that’s much easier to accept on a stage than it is on a screen.

Theatre, by its very nature, is already artificial, and it requires greater suspension of disbelief. The flip side to that, though, is that living human beings are in the same room with you sharing the story, which gives live theatre an immediacy and a power that is impossible to replicate on film. Ann Hathaway was amazing, yes, but her work was done on this project months and months ago. She’s moved on. I’m willing to forgive a multitude of sins against reality when I’m sharing the experience with real performers in real time. I’m even able to figure out a way to overlook that musicians stand ready to accompany their every thought.

In a movie like this one, though, that becomes a much harder hurdle for me to overcome. The choice to film the vocals live instead of pre-recording everything was probably the right one, but it only served to remind me how weird it was that these people were singing to each other instead of speaking. Everything on screen looks startlingly real – people are dirty, they have bad teeth, and when Jean Valjean carries Marius through the sewers, he’s covered in what looks like very real crap. And in the midst of all that reality, they’re singing rhyming couplets to each other? How does that work? I just couldn’t get past that.

It’s not just the music, though. It’s also the melodrama. I don’t swoon anymore when two young strangers glance at each other in the street for ten seconds fall madly in love and would rather die than be parted. That’s just kind of stupid. What happens when she finds out he snores and he finds out she farts in bed?

I also find it too convenient that this handful of characters improbably intersect their lives with each other in ways that tie all their experiences up in tidy little bows by the end. To cite just one example, the Thenardiers, who have already shared several life-altering encounters with Valjean, just happen to stumble on the guy one more time in the sewers, and then they show up at Marius’ wedding and confess the precise bit of information that resolves every major conflict in the show? Boy, that’s handy! This tale is replete with such unlikely coincidences, and when you pile them on top of the ethereal orchestra, it just makes it very hard for me to care.

That said, I can get fully invested in superhero movies where people turn green and grow three feet every time they get angry, or space operas where fat old men in toupees save the universe, or anything with hobbits. (I need to write a review of The Hobbit. Short take on it: I loved it, despite the fact that it was clearly padded with filler. I even loved the filler.) So I can be moved by things that are wildly out of sync with reality. My problem is musicals, I guess. Except I loved The Muppets, which was a musical. But it knew it was a musical and didn’t take itself seriously at all. So maybe that’s the problem. Except I love The Sound of Music to death, and it takes itself very, very seriously. So maybe my problem is just with Les Miz. Except I just saw it at the Utah Shakespearean Festival this past summer and really dug it.

So, to sum up, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I have no overarching conclusion here that would make my opinion on this subject consistent at all. I just watched a tremendously well-produced piece of entertainment and came away utterly unmoved. I had hoped that writing this would help me understand why, but, alas, I remain a mystery to myself.

Maybe there’s a song in that…

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