Phantom of the Opera
Oh, how I wish I could tell you that Joel Schumacher’s version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is at least a worthy adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ stage musical, itself an over-commercialized spectacle (as opposed to “theatre production”) based on Gaston Leroux’ original story. Unfortunately, it’s not. It peels away like its trailer: all fabrics and images, with an absent center. Rather than providing the Opera Ghost a de facto image with which the countless ill-fitting renditions of the past might be spirited away, it offers a placid, contextually insipid regurgitation of the stage show, stripped of the very ingenuity of the theatrical presentation and sent adrift into oblivion.
That said, I’m sure throngs of moviegoers will love it.
Recounting the story might be superfluous, but let’s not pass up an opportunity, shall we? Deformed madman (Erik) who lives in the cellars of the Paris Opera House falls in love with chorus girl Christine Daaé, arranges a series of catastrophes (including murders) to forward her career, and specifically forbids her to see the handsome Raoul. His plan backfires and brings about his own doom, as well as (in this version, at least) significant damage to the Opera’s grand chandelier.
Leroux’s story is short, and told through interviews; although it is based in lore, it is entirely a work of fiction. At its center lies the enduring struggle for human acceptance – in this circumstance, by a man cast out as a result of his deformed appearance, and whose hatred of and fascination with those who spurned him drive him to exceptional lengths of both brilliance and depravity. It’s a somewhat haunting book – but not nearly as scary as the apparent inability of all mankind to translate it into any other medium without crass simplification, overindulgence and hysterical, overwrought pity for the man in the mask.
Lon Cheney’s silent adaptation was first, and the flagbearer from which most of the other misbegotten films of the 30s, 40s, 70s, 80s and 90s took their cue. Cheney succeeded in shocking audiences by transforming himself with fishhooks and odd facial expressions; in today’s CGI culture, it’s difficult to appreciate the effort, or its effect. And most of the films took tremendous liberties with the story, adapting both setting and characters as far from their archetypal roots as seemed conceivable; the results were chilling, and not in a good way.
It took Lloyd Webber – heralded by the public as a Musical Theatre genius and derided by critics as a repetitive hack composer of theatre’s “new generation” – to bring the story to life effectively. The music of “Phantom” is simplistic and melodramatic, its lyrics some of the most egregiously imbecilic of modern theatre history… but the show worked. Thanks to the inspired direction of Hal Prince, outstanding technical wizardry and the brilliant, heartrending work of Michael Crawford in the title role, the musical took wing, surviving over eighteen years of worldwide production to date.
The show succeeded, many believe, because of the balance it brought to the phantom’s plight – true to Leroux’s novel (if not the particulars of the phantom’s origin), it permitted the audience to feel both hatred and compassion for the deformed, deranged man, and both horror and wonder at the truly magical events he creates.
But there is no magic to Schumacher’s film; the phantom’s ability to transcend our imagination has been horribly grounded by the apparent need to show events rather than feelings, special effects and costumes rather than human conflict. In the course of bringing to life the visuals of the musical, Schumacher stomped out its soul.
Gerard Butler plays the phantom – whose disfigurement, so viciously realized on the stage, has been reduced to what looks like a black eye and a bad sunburn – and the man sounds like he can barely sing the notes. Emmy Rossum, in the role of Christine, will suffer the reputation of developing a permutation of female identity more wide-eyed and innocent than the most pliable of Disney characters, but without their willpower or pluck. Patrick Wilson does his best with the role of Raoul, but the man as written is a fairly spineless fop who pouts when he doesn’t get his way and whose only significant contribution to the plot arrives when he stupidly falls prey to the Phantom’s tricks and becomes a pawn in the struggle between Christine and the more charismatic suitor. Even Minnie Driver, who chews the scenery as the diva Carlotta, seems to be more confused than chanteuse, her antics funny but insufficient.
No doubt Schumacher and friends embarked on the Phantom’s boat in anticipation of emulating Rob Marshall’s success with 2002’s “Chicago.” But “Phantom” in its musical form is ill-fitted to the big screen, severely hampered by its lack of spoken dialogue. Words are best emoted slowly (i.e. through song) when they are expressed at a great distance – say, from the mezzanine to the stage; the immediacy and the intimacy of film does not lend itself to soaring operatic ballads or quadruple harmony. “Chicago” worked because of its Jazz sensibilities, its furious riffs and quick-witted dialogue – in short, it’s a brilliant show in any medium, and represents a creative panache far from the traditional Hollywood sensibilities, and certainly out of the reach of the likes of Lloyd Webber. “The Phantom of the Opera” by comparison is Lloyd Webber’s slow child, the result of an insidious, intractable process of creative inbreeding that has threatened to cripple the Great White Way… but that appeals to Hollywood because of its marketing glitz. Did the team at Warner Bros. – or even Schumacher - comprehend the emotional complexities at work beneath the frilled draperies, masquerade sequins and shimmering crystals surrounding the Phantom? Probably not – if they had, they’d have realized that this slick, soulless sewage might sound like music to die-hard fans of the musical, but it doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance with the rest of us.