Phanfare with flair
Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 8, 2005 | Publication: New York Times | Author: Phoebe Hoban
If Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera is a chestnut, Joel Schumacher's new film is a chestnut flamboyantly roasting on a fire.
Depending on one's Lloyd Webber tolerance level - and there are legions of diehard "phans" - the lavish-looking movie will either feel like a gaudily wrapped Christmas present or evince Grinch-like disdain.
Everything about the Broadway musical, which has run since 1988 (second only to Cats), has set the standard for over-the-top. Not surprisingly, Schumacher, whose films have ranged from the much-reviled Batman and Robin and Batman Forever to well-rendered Grisham adaptations (The Client, A Time to Kill), has made every effort to ensure that the Phantom phenomenon remains shamelessly intact.
In the film, the Paris Opera House has become the "Opera Populaire", which is the perfect label for Lloyd Webber's Phantom in its stage and celluloid incarnations.
Lloyd Webber and Schumacher are unabashed about pushing the popular cultural envelope past the point of no return, producing work that critics loyally love to hate (so far, reviews for this film have ranged from vicious to mixed) and the public just as loyally loves to love. The Phantom franchise is, above all, about mass commercial appeal.
In Phantom the movie, Schumacher, who has a flair for fabulous window dressing and finding pretty young talent, has cannily upped the ante. He has ratcheted up the romance, sex and schmaltz of the original Phantom several notches by adding a nubile cast, larger-than-life sets and a vertiginously swooping camera.
As much as anything else, the film is a launching pad for its 18-year-old star, Emmy Rossum (Songcatcher, Mystic River, The Day After Tomorrow), this month's cover girl on several fashion magazines.
"Finding her was a miracle," says Schumacher. "She came in at the 11th hour. She was 16 years old and had trained at the Metropolitan Opera when she was seven."
Gerard Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) plays the man in the mask with a rock star-like swagger and cape-swirling flourishes. Patrick Wilson (Broadway's Oklahoma!, HBO's Angels in America), as the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, gets to ride a white horse and brandish a sword.
Miranda Richardson sweetens the role of the sinister ballet mistress, Mme Giry (even if she does have an odd French accent), and Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds have a ball with their duets. Last but not least, Minnie Driver (the only actress not to actually sing her role) delivers a comic turn as a scenery-chewing diva.
"It was quite a challenge wearing those 50-pound (22.6 kilograms) dresses and 30-pound (13.6 kilogram) wigs," says Driver, who during her cameos looks as much like a confection as a character.
"The movie could have looked like a Meatloaf video, but it's divinely ornate," she says.
ORNATE is an understatement. On the stage, the director Harold Prince and the set designer Maria Bjornsson created authentic theatre magic - a jaw-dropping grotto, complete with lake, mist, gondola and mysteriously rising candelabras. On screen the show-stopping effects have been replaced by all the elaborate movie sets that a reported $US70 million ($A91.5 million) (raised by Lloyd Webber and his company) could muster, and enough lingeringly glamorous close-ups of the glowing young stars to fill a 21/2-hour Calvin Klein perfume ad.
"There is nothing a film can do that can compete with a live performance," Schumacher acknowledges. "You have to put the success of the show aside, but keep its essence, and you have to give people who may have seen the show a lot of new surprises."
At times, the movie has the dewy romance and passion of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. And if Butler's Phantom lacks the masterly full-throated ghoulishness of the Broadway interpretation , he makes up for it in matinee-idol sex appeal; this is the Phantom as Heathcliff, complete with a tragic childhood. And black leather Michael Jackson-like gloves.
Butler's Phantom oozes sexuality. He says: "A direction I would often hear from Joel was, 'Sexy.' and my answer often was, 'But it's so sad'."
"It's like the song ," he adds. "It is very sexy and incredibly sad and they are both going on at the same time."
The Phantom movie has its own back story. Lloyd Webber first approached Schumacher as a collaborator 15 years ago, after being impressed by his use of music in The Lost Boys. At the time, though, several key factors converged to postpone the film: The musical quickly proved to be such a success, there were concerns that a movie might erode its audience. And perhaps more to the point, Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman, who played Christine in the original production, divorced. The plans for Crawford and Brightman as stars in the film, to be shot in Prague, were scrapped.
It wasn't until 2002, when Lloyd Webber and Schumacher, who over the years had become friends, met for dinner, that the idea of the film was seriously revived.
Lloyd Webber, who invested $US6 million of his own money, insisted that the actors do their own singing, but otherwise left casting up to Schumacher, who had two caveats: the stars had to be sexy and they had to be young.
"In the past, the Phantom was always a ghoul and Christine was always a damsel in distress, like Fay Wray," Schumacher says.
"I really wanted the Phantom to be more sexy, and Christine to be more formidable. Andrew doesn't pretend to know about movies, and the music is his world. So I made the movie and he re-orchestrated the music and worked with the symphony. I wanted to make it part Gothic horror, part romance and part action adventure, but I also didn't want to make it too gimmicky. You have to not be embarrassed or shy or cynical and just throw yourself into the romance and embrace it."
Thus the Phantom looks downright handsome, and even when unmasked is hardly hideous. "It would have been insulting to the audience in a romantic drama to have a huge plastic prosthetic glued to Gerry's face," Schumacher says. "We didn't want to give you Friday the 13th."
Phantom of the Opera is now screening.