The Great Les Misérables Geek-Out

On Christmas Day, in the year of our Lord 2012, Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical Les Misérables arrives in cinemas across the nation. Grantland staffers Rembert Browne and Emily Yoshida chose to open their presents early this year, and have already seen it in special Hollywood-type screenings. You may think that is unfair, but they love Les Misérables more than you do. Here’s what they thought of the movie:

Rembert Browne: The only appropriate way for both of us to start our discussion of Les Misérables the film, is to begin with disclaimers. Mine: I have seen many musicals, am a fan of musicals, participated in musicals, and Les Mis is my favorite of all time. By a landslide. Another disclaimer: After performing the musical in 10th grade, not a single word has left this surprisingly not-steel-trap of a brain I am host to. Final disclaimer: Emotion is a thing I feel. A lot.

OK, your turn, Yoshida. Feel free to make me look less like a freak.

Emily Yoshida: OK, here goes. My lifelong love affair with Les Misérables started in 1995 when PBS aired the 10th Anniversary Concert on Great Performances during a pledge drive. Now, this may shock you, Rem, but I was kind of a big musical theater fan around that time. Still, my love of Les Mis is the only part of that I will openly, publicly admit to, if only because it feels actually really important and relevant to who I am now as a person. I wish that were a hyperbolic statement, but I don’t think it is. I was never in a production of Les Mis, because my high school wasn’t too big on letting 15-year-olds play syphilitic whores, but the Broadway and 10th-anniversary recordings are imprinted in their entirety on the left and right side of my brain, respectively. I have seen the show live twice, once as a kid and once as a “grown-up,” and both times were equally unforgettable. When I was 10, I sewed an Eponine costume for my American Girl doll out of a couple of dirty dishrags, and I made a triptych diorama of the show out of Legos. It went deep.

Browne: Now that we’ve simultaneously promoted our Les Mis street cred and lost all objective film critiquing cred, let’s get into it. First: expectations going in. For me, they couldn’t have been higher. I wrote a very fanboyish blog post when the first trailer was released, which turned my worries over Tom Hooper ruining my favorite musical into unbridled excitement over what appeared to be a film that would do the Broadway production justice. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I listened to the Original Broadway Recording nonstop for weeks. I worked on excuses for how I would convince my mother that I needed to “run errands” on Christmas Day at midnight. I practiced singing from my diaphragm so I could make it all the way through “One Day More.” The trailer had squashed all fears and, for better or worse, my mania had arrived and there was no turning back.

Yoshida: In one of your and Silver’s trailer reviews, you published a typically all-caps Gchat exchange we had over the film, and I think I said something like, “I feel like I’m in the future.” That was not a random funny comment. As the trailers for Les Mis started rolling in over the summer, I realized that it looked and felt like the Les Mis film I had been dreaming of ever since the show first got its hooks into me. Things 10-year-old me thought I’d be doing in 2012: winning an Oscar, riding a hoverboard, seeing an intensely realist film version of Les Misérables. One of those things was about to happen. There was very little that could convince me that this wasn’t going to be one of the most important film-going experiences of my life.

Brief aside: What were your biggest get-hyped soundtrack jams in the last couple of months (other than “One Day More,” OBVS)? It’s been all about “Valjean’s Soliloquy”/”Javert’s Suicide” for me. Dangerous to drive to, because I always tear up on the line “my heart is stone but still it trembles,” but that has not stopped me.

Browne: Oh, we’re talking about jams? So, “At the End of the Day” is a banger. It’s playful, it’s scandalous, and there are like 450 people singing at once. Others include “Who Am I?” which is just incredible, especially when my guy JV is all, “who am I? TWO FOUR SIX OH ONEEEEEEE.” I always wanted to be in a situation, probably with a police officer, when I belted out that line, but substituted my childhood zip code. “The Confrontation” is obviously something very important, and then the medley of angst-filled student songs, “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing.”

I think I especially resonate with those last ones, because somewhere in my psyche, I want to be a French revolutionary student that can sing and is handy with the musket.

Let’s talk about the film ASAP. I feel like if we get any deeper in this memories hole, we’ll never make it out. Let’s start with this: Rank your five favorite characters based on how well they were acted, and then your two least favorite. So, purely just as an example, for your least favorite, you would write “Russell Crowe/Javert.” You know, purely as an example of how to write it.

Yoshida: Oh, no! Power of suggestion and also reality is making me think I should rank Russell Crowe as Javert as my least favorite! Seriously though, classic example of casting for looks/name over actual ability to play a part. I understand the producers wanted to have a “star” in that role, but guess which is more distracting over the course of two and a half hours: an unknown actor, or a known actor who can’t sing? This was especially disappointing to me, because, as you can maybe tell from my aforementioned Jams, Javert is my favorite character. I also had a few problems with Hugh Jackman’s Valjean, though more singing-wise than acting wise. I actually thought it was a pretty sensitive and thoughtful performance, especially in the second half of the film, but Jackman’s singing voice verges on nasal at points, which undercuts some of the more emotional moments.

It might seem like a problem to have my two least favorite performances in the lead roles, but the good news is that Eddie Redmayne is a surprisingly great Marius (especially for a character that I don’t really care for,) and Aaron Tveit, a.k.a. TRIP VAN DER BILT from Gossip Girl, is also really good as Enjolras. How come nobody is talking about Enjolras? I know he gets short shrift because he’s more of a historical symbol than an actual character, but he gets some of the best moments here. Same for the kid who plays Gavroche. EXCELLENT Gavroche. And SBC and HBC are predictably scuzzy and hammy and fun as the Thenardiers.

And Hathaway. Hathaway is great, but it’s the kind of great I want to attach a “but” at the end of. She’s like really good foie gras or something; I know it’s good and fancy and trendy, but I physically cannot deal with too much before I start to feel sick. She’s just SO intense and emotionally raw; I could’ve done with a pinch less. Maybe that’s an unpopular opinion to have, though. How’d you like her performance?

Rembert: I’m not saying anything about Hathaway until you give me your rankings. NUMBERS, YOSHIDA.

Yoshida:Fine fine fine. NUMB3RS. Let’s rank some art.

The best:

1. Anne Hathaway as Fantine — I guess? I mean, right?
2. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras
3. Eddie Redmayne as Marius
4. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette
5. Kid who plays Gavroche

The worst:

1. Russell Crowe as Javert
2. (distantly) Hugh Jackman as Valjean

It’s hard, because the film, even more starkly than the stage production, really drives home how chill things are in Paris vs. Montreuil-sur-Mer and Montfermeil. I mean, people are still dying of consumption and whatnot, but none of the characters we’re watching are forced to sell their hair and/or selves. While Samantha Barks is vocally great, she didn’t make me feel very much for Eponine — all I could think is that she was lucky to have time to think about her love life. Seyfried, meanwhile, made me understand and appreciate things about Cosette I never had before, which is crazy, because I, like every other person on earth, had been majorly #TeamEponine up until now.

That list is bonkers, I just realized. But in a lot of (interesting, occasionally frustrating) ways, this movie is bonkers. I’m standing by it.

Browne: OK, now I’ll address Anne. Happened to be a huge fan of her as Fantine. She can sing, she gets into the part, but she somehow, in my mind, doesn’t overact. If there’s any role that was supposed to bring out the urge to overact that she has, it’s a part in Les Mis, but I genuinely think she toned it down to an appropriate level. For someone that’s only in the film for the first third, she left a very powerful impression, and even though we don’t know each other like that, I’m weirdly proud of her. OK, my list:

The best:

1. Samantha Barks as Eponine
2. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras
3. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette
4. Hugh Jackman as Valjean
5. (tie) Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Anne Hathaway as Fantine

The worst:

1. Russell Crowe as Javert
2. Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier

The actors that proved the most enjoyable to watch in this film were the ones whose voices floated out so naturally and conversationally that you weren’t constantly paying attention to the fact they were singing. No one did this as well as Samantha Barks. I’ve never heard her speak in real life, so I’m forced to assume after watching the film that’s how she talks. And I love it. Also, she completely sold the idea that she was simultaneously in love with Marius but ride or die even after learning of his love for Cosette. Also, even in a movie full of very attractive movie stars like Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway, she took hold of a significant chunk of my boyish, lustful heart. I think I’m in love with her? Marius, why you gotta do her like that? Cosette, why you gotta be such a homewrecker?

Tveit completely owns the role of rabble-rouser Enjolras. He’s the friend you had in high school who convinced you to do bad stuff, even when you knew it was bad, but his pitch was so good and you knew a good story would come out of it, so you did it anyway. Except, in this case, they all die. So that’s a thing.

Seyfried’s voice has no flaws, which was great to witness and listen to, but I was quite impressed by her acting, even though the way she constantly addresses Valjean as “Pa Pa” about drove me crazy. But that’s not her fault. She can’t just start saying “Dad” because it sounds better.

Jackman was the one character that got better as the musical went on. His voice got stronger (until the end, when it had to get weaker) and he became a more convincing Valjean. I didn’t have any problems with his voice, Emily, but maybe that’s because I was just doing the natural thing of comparing him to Javert/Crowe, which, in turn, made Jackman sound like all Three Tenors combined.

Redmayne as the most unknown lead definitely held his weight. It’s a star-making role for him. As for Hathaway, she’s going to win an Oscar. So that’s a great thing, too.

As for the worst characters, I thought the Thenardiers were too much. I get the role is supposed to be some form of comic relief in this sea of drama, but it was too much, especially on the part of Cohen. On numerous occasions, it almost felt like he was breaking the fourth wall, completely taking me out of the story that I repeatedly became lost in. It was disappointing, because I love the characters, but I was excited every time they left the screen. The great part about knowing the musical inside in and out is that you know when that’s going to happen. Except for those times when you know you’ve got about 10 minutes left at the Inn.

And then there’s Crowe. I think this Javert miscasting could/should cost Les Misérables a Best Picture Oscar win. I know it’s a Lincoln vs. Zero Dark Thirty race right now, but when Javert winds up being the most powerful figure, Les Mis has the potential to become a completely different story. Instead, we have a Javert that is acted decently, but is sung unfortunately. The brassy, shaky vibrato almost suggests that even he realized halfway through shooting that he was the weak link, vocally, with the end result being a character who you are constantly reminded is Russell Crowe attempting to sing the part of Javert in the musical-turned-film Les Misérables  out on Christmas Day. It’s such a bummer.

OK, I just rambled. Sorry. Needed to vent. What else? I just made an Anne Hathaway-Oscar claim? Is that crazy? What about your favorite scenes? There are some obvious standouts for me. And then, you know, we can always get into moments when we lost complete control of our emotions.

Yoshida: I feel like it might be more efficient to list the parts of the film where I didn’t lose all control of my emotions, but I’ll try to throw together a sampler platter. Obviously “I Dreamed a Dream” is emotional terrorism; I’m pretty sure the theater full of critics I saw it with were all audibly bawling, and I even bet half of them went on to pan the film. You can’t not cry during “I Dreamed a Dream.” It is such rough business. Let’s see, what else? Definitely lost it during Valjean’s soliloquy, which was the closest Jackman got to Oscar-worthy “Dreamed” heights (he starts to break down on the line “I feel my shame inside me like a knife” and so did I.) Both are shot in basically one take, with the camera getting all up in Jackman’s and Hathaway’s dirty, blackened-tooth business as they rip their souls apart in front of the lens. Did I like that style? Unsure. Did it “work” on me? Of course it did; I was a mess.

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was a surprise gut-wrencher, too. I like that song just fine, but it’s never made me weep, and at that point, I was totally sold on Eddie Redmayne. He plays the dumb, starry-eyed kid so well that by the time that song comes around, and he’s completely devastated and jaded, it’s all the more effective.

As for stuff that made me cover my face in an “oh my god oh my god I am finally watching Les Misérables the movie and it is making my life complete” way while trying not to hyperventilate, I though Hooper pulled off the big ensemble numbers flawlessly. I mean, “Look Down.” The Paris version. Holy shit. How genius was that staging? Using Gavroche and his urchin gang as the audience surrogate as we tour the slums and weave in between and on top of the rich folks’ carriages was such a great way to build that world visually in ways that were never possible on stage. And “At the End of the Day” was also incredible; the scene at the factory, in particular, which is usually kind of hammed up on stage (because the other seamstress ladies get like one line apiece and have to MILK IT).

Browne: “AND IN A BEDDDDDDD.”

Yoshida: “And we’re counting our blessings.”

But I liked seeing it delivered almost entirely in whispers, which is, of course, far more realistic.

There were at least a dozen other awesome moments, too. Overall, I was reminded that one of the fun things about growing up with this musical is that the characters and songs you find the most meaningful change as you get older. “On My Own” is not on this list because, as I mentioned, I don’t really identify with Eponine the way I did when I was a tween. But it’s all good, because I appreciate so many other songs and characters more now.

There should be some kind of OK Cupid “Which Les Mis character are you” quiz. I’m going to go find one while you tell me what sequences turned you into Jell-O.

Rembert: Maybe this is because I’m still on the Eponine train (it just goes in a circle, the train; there is no beginning and end), but “A Little Fall of Rain” didn’t just kill me. It murdered me. Actually, it built me up to a level of social prominence, just to assassinate me. That’s how real it was. Also, I can’t stress enough how ride or die she is. Just incredible. I mean, “I’ll sleep in your embrace, at last.” Poor thing. She just wanted to feel special. OK, what else? Actually, back to “Little Fall of Rain,” when Eponine and Marius start into the duet at the end, a 7-pound tear fell in my Icee. OK, I’m actually done this time.

Jackman/Valjean’s “Bring Him Home” wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough, because that song is everything. It was extremely well acted, that scene. Also, just to tackle the subject matter, he’s singing to his adopted daughter’s boyfriend. WHEN DOES THAT EVER HAPPEN? Answer: It’s never happened. But it’s incredible.

Also, the end: When Ghost Fantine came back to flirt with Valjean, something I forgot happens, and I got choked up again. And then that murderous line that I can barely even type without sniffling: “To love another person is to see the face of gawwwwwwwwd” — which goes right into the faintest of choruses and steadily crescendos. It’s just a lot to watch on a giant screen with loudspeakers while sitting next to people who are going through similar things.

As you mentioned, while not causing open-mouth cries, all the ensemble scenes were incredible, amazingly shot, completely transporting you to that time period. Especially in the second half, with the barricade and various battles.

Alright, Young Yoshida, what’s left to talk about? Are we at final thoughts time? Recommendations? Are we allowed to give out stars? Remember when we were supposed to lip-synch “The Confrontation” and film it and then put it on the Internet, and I was going to cut your hair and call you “Fantida” and then you were going to cut my hair and call me “Remtine”? We really dropped the ball.

Yoshida: Wait, really quick, this is important:
Fantine

Browne: I bet I get Cosette. I’m going to be so mad.
Thenardier

Dammit.

Yoshida: I’m really glad we did that.
OK, the million-centime question: Do you see Les Misérables  if you are unsure right now if you should see Les Misérables? (Cuz let’s be honest, if you’re excited for this movie, you know who you are.) This is such a tough question. While I feel like the visualization of this film is a great gateway for first timers to understand the story and get swept up in it, vocally it falls short. This is mostly due to the fact that the actors are singing live on set; as you probably know from the special making-of featurette that’s been playing before every film in theaters for months now (I think I saw it in front of Dredd 3D). It’s a nice idea and adds to the realism, but sometimes the singing is so rough that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow the melodies if I didn’t already know them inside and out.

Rembert Browne: Just to echo those sentiments, which I fully agree with, at my screening of Les Misérables , I sat next to Grantland Cinematrician Zach Baron, who had little-to-no connection with the musical. I almost felt bad for him (almost) because we were having two completely different experiences while watching the film. I knew the words that were being sung and would say them in my head about half a second before they were sung, so following along wasn’t an issue for me. For him, however, there was often a puzzled look on his face, because there are stretches when it truly would be a struggle to take it all in, follow along with the plot, and deal with a few less than spectacular voices.

I think the last line of The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the film, a critique which was more negative than positive, sums up my feelings on Les Misérables perfectly: “Still, there is widespread energy, passion and commitment to the cause, which for some might be all that is required.”

That not only sums it up for the moviegoer that comes in with Les Mis baggage, but also for the person that just wants to go through some stuff. You know, feel things. It’s energetic, it’s grandiose, it’s over the top, it’s a little too daring, and it’s noticeably flawed, but still, through all that, a worthwhile movie-going experience.

Yoshida: I think you hit on a really important point — the “going through some stuff” point. That’s why you subject yourself to Les Misérables, be it on stage, on a soundtrack, Victor Hugo’s doorstop of a novel (never forget), or in this latest iteration. You want to see some humans re-enact the most intense, basic feelings that humans can go through, all before a tumultuous historical backdrop. You want to be reminded that “to love another person is to see the face of gaaaaaaaawwwwwd.” I think it’s possible for newcomers to appreciate that stuff in this film if they’re open to it. My suggestion, though, as counterintuitive as this may seem, is to read the synopsis on Wikipedia first if you’re completely unfamiliar with the story. Don’t think of it as a “spoiler.” Think of it as providing yourself with the proper context to appreciate all the other details. It’s like reading the summary of an Italian opera in the program before the lights go down, like ya do. (We fight for the right to a night at the opera, indeed.) Oh, and don’t listen to the film’s soundtrack first. That’s just foolish. No offense to Hathaway, et al., but I don’t know why they’re selling that.

Les Misérables, especially this film version, isn’t about plot points. It’s about the experience, which may not be for everyone. But it’s a big, singularly epic experience and worth checking out, on the off chance it resonates with you and you end up on the floor in a puddle of cry. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes we need that.

Browne: It sounds crazy, but I’d put it in the same category as Avatar. When Avatar came out, I had never seen a movie remotely close to that scale. It took genres of film (fantasy/science-fiction) to completely new heights, and it was almost a mandatory viewing experience in theaters. While I thoroughly enjoy it, the film is still quite underwhelming to watch on a normal home television with normal home speakers. I say all this because, while I do think James Cameron did more with Avatar than Hooper did with Les Mis, Cameron didn’t have the pressure of living up to Avatar: The Musical. Hooper, on the other hand, bravely took one of the greatest musicals of all time, found a way to adapt it to the screen in an authentic way, and, while it’s not perfect, it was clear early on that I had never seen a movie musical even remotely close to it in scale. It took that genre to a completely new height, and, if you’re going to see it, seeing it in theaters in the largest, loudest setting possible is a must.

Les Mis and Avatar. I went there, and I’m not mad about it. I think that’s all I got left, and my vote is to go see it. Many of you won’t like it, but more of you will.

Filed Under: Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Emotions, Feelings, Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables, Movies, Russell Crowe

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

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