Thursday, December 23, 2004

MUSIC OF THE SLIGHT

Movie: Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera

Posted on Thu, Dec 23, 2004 at 4:00 AM

**1/2

Our Rating: 2.50

Will even its built-in audience of Andrew Lloyd Webber disciples – the same folks who read Harlequin romances and collect Charles-and-Diana memorabilia, basically – fall for director Joel Schumacher's perfunctory, visually unimaginative version of The Phantom of the Opera? Perhaps, if they live in burgs too backwater to receive a watered-down touring production of the show. Then again, Orlando has hosted the Gothic kitsch-fest more than once, and the dateless wonders who attended our screening of the movie still applauded after the first musical number, as if the actors could hear them, or something. So maybe the flick is almost as effective a souvenir of the real thing as one of those omnipresent mask-bedecked tote bags.

But a souvenir it is. Weighed on its own merits, the movie is an overlong, cosmetically ordinary melodrama that bungles most of its chances for transcendent flamboyance. That's a surprising letdown coming from Schumacher, a former window dresser whose two Batman movies relocated Gotham City to someplace west of Fire Island. Major opportunities for surface excitement – including the first appearance of the Phantom in the ingénue Christine's mirror, and her fantastic voyage to her mysterious benefactor's underground lair – limp by, unenhanced by any especial ingenuity of staging or cinematography. The restricted on-screen action conveys little of the urgency we're picking up from the furiously pumping minor-key riffs on the soundtrack; in a weird, backhanded way, this is a film that can make anyone appreciate Webber' music for 143 minutes.

On second thought, we should probably subtract the amount of time that actor Gerard Butler spends with his mouth open. An unschooled, inferior vocalist whose lip-synching skills are equally embryonic, Butler is a lackluster Phantom from the moment he enters the frame. The deficiencies extend to his physical presence: A double chin and an obvious lisp are not attributes that tend to goose the intimidation factor of such an iconic villain's role. Far nicer things can be said of the film's Christine, Emmy Rossum (Sean Penn's doomed daughter in Mystic River), who conjures a consistent gentility of spirit and remembers to follow her lip movements through to the end of a line. (Some of her cast mates tend to clam up while their counterparts on the audio track are still warbling.) The problematic role of love interest Raoul, as well, is likeably portrayed by Patrick Wilson.

Yet only Minnie Driver's cartoonish raging as the opera house's resident diva, Carlotta, attains the shameless excess the project called for. Furthermore, there's no telling why the script has been rejiggered in ways that minimize the effectiveness of all-important set pieces like the dropping of the chandelier. If he had really known what he was doing, Schumacher would have pulled a William Castle and tricked out every theater with a plastic chandelier that could swoop over the audience's heads at the right moment. Now that's B-grade entertainment.

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