Eric D. Snider

The Phantom of the Opera

Those of us who love musicals will not be thrilled with the new big-screen version of "The Phantom of the Opera" -- not because it's a terrible film (though it is), but because of the bad name it gives movie musicals. "Chicago" revived the genre and brought in audiences consisting largely of people for whom musicals aren't usually their "thing." Some of those people, having been eased into the genre by the swinging razzle-dazzle of "Chicago," might wander into "Phantom," too, only to be numbed, annoyed and confused. "See?!" they'll say as they stagger out of the film 143 minutes later. "I told you I didn't like musicals!"

Which is a shame, because on stage, "Phantom" is a good way of introducing people to the art of the musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart's lavish spectacle has catchy tunes and is not overly complicated or intellectual. It is accessible and ordinary, and since it is almost entirely sung (with very little dialogue), there are none of those awkward "they were just talking, then all of a sudden they started singing" transitions that can be so off-putting to newbies.

Nearly everything that is good about the stage version is lost in the movie version, which was adapted by Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher and directed by Schumacher. The man has directed good films, including "Phone Booth" and "Tigerland," but when he directs bad ones, he directs the hell out of them. I'm thinking of the loud bombast of "Batman & Robin," or the braying idiocy of "Bad Company." All of his worst impulses -- from bad casting to bad camera angles -- are brought to bear in "Phantom."

Take, for example, the role of the Phantom himself, the mad, disfigured genius who lives beneath the Opera Populaire in 1870s Paris, where the story is set. Schumacher has cast Gerard Butler, bland star of such loud, dumb films as "Dracula 2000," "Timeline," "Reign of Fire" and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life." Where in all of that did Schumacher see in Butler the potential to play a sensitive, wounded man who obsesses over a singer?

Butler's singing voice is too lightweight for a man with as much built-up passion and anger as the Phantom. It is not an especially good voice, either, growling some of the lower notes and sounding far too modern and pop-ish for a character whose only musical influences have been opera. (Wouldn't a man who lived under an operahouse sing more like Pavarotti and less like Michael Bolton?)

Butler may have been cast because he is handsome -- which is actually a liability for this role, since the Phantom is supposed to be disfigured to the point of being shunned by all society. The way Schumacher and his makeup artists have rendered him, the Phantom has three-fourths of a perfectly good, enviably attractive face, marred only by what appears to be a burn scar around his right eye. For this he was put in a circus freak show? He ought to be uglier. But of course, people wouldn't go see a movie with an ugly man as the romantic lead.

The object of the Phantom's affections is Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum), a young member of the chorus to whom he has been giving covert vocal lessons. He ensures her chance at stardom by antagonizing the prima donna, Carlotta (Minnie Driver, hilarious and underused), who storms off the stage after the latest in a series of mysterious accidents for which the operahouse is infamous. Christine's audition for the company managers is a song called "Think of Me," which we are told comes from the third act of the opera they are rehearsing. It has always amused me that in the middle of some 18th- or 19th-century opera is a cheesy pop-musical love song that, by the sound of it, can only have been written in the 1980s. It doesn't even approximate "opera," nor is it a particularly impressive number. But of course, people wouldn't go see a show that had TOO much opera in it. Setting one in an operahouse is risky enough.

Emmy Rossum's voice is lovely, as is she, but she is devoid of passion. When she sings, her face is expressionless. Matching her in this regard is Patrick Wilson, the Broadway actor who plays Raoul, Christine's non-Phantom paramour. For a fun drinking game, watch him closely and any time his eyes or eyebrows move, take a shot. By the time the film is over, you will have taken two shots. But of course, no one wants to see a movie in which characters' faces register emotion. No, wait. That's wrong.

A Phantom who can't sing and who isn't even hideous, other characters who sing with great enthusiasm yet who do not match it with their faces -- it's as though Schumacher hates musicals and is trying to sabotage every musical element of the film. This theory is borne out by the way he stages the songs. He seldom keeps the camera on a singer's face for more than a couple seconds while he or she is singing, constantly cutting away or giving us long shots instead, thus destroying any hope we have of feeling the sentiments behind the lyrics. There is too much random motion, too much unfocused energy. I note that "Moulin Rouge" had a good deal of choppy editing, too, yet Baz Luhrmann was also not afraid to show us the singers' faces for several seconds at a time. A film musical needn't be "stagy." There just needs to be purpose to the movement, and when a song feels like it needs less movement, the director needs to be willing to restrain himself.

Schumacher seems to have had no idea, when he was filming, that there would be music added later, or what kind of music it might be, or what sort of emotions it would be expressing. He just goes right on swooping the cameras around, showing us expensive set pieces and vibrant costumes, regardless of what the texture of the music would suggest he ought to do.

There is a very funny song called "Prima Donna," sung by the opera managers Firmin (Ciaran Hinds) and Andre (Simon Callow) to Carlotta in an attempt to woo her back to the stage, the Phantom's insistence that she not perform notwithstanding. Schumacher does not seem to know that this song is funny, for he directs the scene the same way he directs everything else, i.e., chaotically and peripatetically. At every turn, he convinces me he is absolutely the wrong man to direct any musical.

Some of my colleagues have said that a director as shallow as Schumacher is the perfect fit for a musical as shallow as "Phantom of the Opera," but I think the finished product proves otherwise. On stage, "Phantom" can be a pleasure, even if it is a guilty one. On screen, what passion and excitement there is in the work has been sucked out; it has become boring, which is something the stage version could never be accused of. It is shallow, yes, but even shallow works need competent directors.

Grade: D+

Rated PG-13, a little violence, a brief incident of mooning; should have been PG

2 hrs., 23 min.

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This item has 15 comments

  1. Mallory says:

    I completely disagree with this reveiw. Which, surprises me because usually I agree with you. Anyway, I must point out some flaws in your reveiw. Quote: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart's lavish spectacle has catchy tunes and is not overly complicated or intellectual. Okay, I agree. But later on you say Quote:..."Think of Me," which we are told comes from the third act of the opera they are rehearsing. It has always amused me that in the middle of some 18th- or 19th-century opera is a cheesy pop-musical love song that, by the sound of it, can only have been written in the 1980s. Completley hypocrital. Also, You obviously havn't read the book, or, if you did, you were sleeping most of the time. The Phantom's voice is supposed to be that way, why on Earth would Christine call him an angel if it wasn't? If anything, I think it should have been softer. I do, however agree with you when you say Raoul dosn't move his eyes enough. But, what are you going to do about it? I didn't notice until you said something and I went back and watched it again. Who wants to watch a movie where all you see is the singer. I think the filming was expertise. It never stayed in one place for to long. Do you, by chance, remember the part when Christine is singing 'Think of Me'? It was necesary the camera moved, it wouldn't have worked the same if it hadn't. Quote: Rated PG-13, a little violence, a brief incident of mooning; should have been PG. Were you, by chance, asleep for half the movie?? This was PG-13. It definately earned it. There was violence, and quite a few deaths. How would you feel about a seven-year-old seeing that?

  2. Sarah says:

    Actually, this review is one of my favorites of all time because it's so hilarious. I was totally obsessed with Phantom when I was thirteen, so a teeny, tiny part of me was sad to come back years later (and now as an opera singer myself) and see it rendered so crappily on screen.

    The rest of me, however, was too busy making fun of the movie to care. Especially the singing. Sweet sassy molassy, Lloyd Webber, have you gone deaf in your old age?

  3. Justin says:

    This is the best movie I ever saw in my whol life.

  4. Virginia says:

    Having been three years since this film was released, most likely no one will ever read this. But I have to say it.

    Eric, I usually agree with you. I love your critiques! But I completely disagree with you on this one. Maybe it's because I am a woman, and a woman will definitely view a romantic musical in a different light from a man.

    I thought casting Gerard Butler was pure genius. There is hardly a woman in the world who, even if they think he can't sing, does not love him in this part. How dare you intimate that he can't act. Gerry is a fine actor and not only that -- he has brains. If you ever follow him closely enough to listen to him in an interview, it doesn't take long to figure out the man is well-read and extremely bright. Both turn ons, by the way.

    I love his voice in this part. Who would ever assume the Phantom has a great voice? I am looking for lusty, passionate, not exactly pretty (reflecting his physical description). His voice is more than adequate -- he is always on key and his passion resonates. The cinematrography is great. And how can someone who likes Phantom on the stage criticize the music in the film? It's the same music!! Written by the same man. Good grief.

    Anyway. 'Nuff said. I loved Phantom on the stage; I love it more on film. I feel more drawn in and part of the story. BTW - I can't stand Patrick Wilson off stage or camera, but the man has a remarkably clear and gorgeous voice. Perfect for Raoul. Absolutely lyrical. No doubt inherited from his mother who has a beautiful operatic voice.

    VCB

  5. Lotus says:

    I felt that this was a great piece. As a movie and as a play.

  6. Jacob says:

    And since I'm still awake: While I do agree with Eric on all of the points here, I have to say that it deserves at least a flat D for the weirdness that is Schumacher's Masquerade. Nothing at all like the stage version, but pretty cool nonethelesser.

    And for all of you that like Gerard in this role (I will forever adore him simply for "Dear Frankie"), ask yourself one question: would you hire a man who sounded (not looked) like that as your, personal, voice coach? After you honestly answer 'No,' ask, "Then how could he transform a lowly chorus girl into the greatest singer at the greatest operahouse in the world?"

  7. Blank Frank says:

    Lacking sleep and seeing Gerard Butler and Michael Bolton mentioned in the same review makes me imagine King Leonidas belting out "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You." And that makes me giggle.

  8. Christi says:

    As a fan of the stage version of "Phantom" (yeah, yeah, I know) and musicals in general, I have to say Eric is pretty much spot on here. Bad casting choices (a Phantom who isn't ugly and can't sing, and a Christine who sounds like she belongs in an average high school production of "The Music Man"), good actors mis-used (poor Patrick Wilson), bad song staging, nonsensical additions (that swordfight, ugh)...a person who hated the source material couldn't have abused it more.

    The only point I disagree on is Minnie Driver. I thought she was far too over the top and her accent belonged in a road company version of "West Side Story." At least she used a vocal double--the majority of the cast would have done well to follow that example.

  9. Christi says:

    Oh, and an addendum: "Learn to be Lonely" is quite possibly the worst thing Andrew Lloyd Webber has ever written (and even I will admit there's a LOT of competition for that dubious honor).

  10. Suzanna says:

    I think that the musical "Phantom of the Opera", was a great film.(With Emmy Rossem, she ROCKS!) Those who just, insult the movie, your totally missing out!

    Not just insulting the movie, but also the acters, and actresses. You know, they work really hard, and do you do that pruducing, and directing, and acting?!?

    When you just come out and say, "That movie was rediculous!" how do you think the people who work really hard on the movie feel? What is the heck is wrong with you people?! (And those people are NOT UGLY!!!!)

  11. Phorum Ghost says:

    I have been a "Phantom junkie" since before the ALW musical. So needless to say, my phandom did not arise from the musical. Usually I have been witness to some very stupid comments and people who post very negatively in a poor attempt to sound intellectual. This review is a wonderful, refreshing exception.

    I am currently trying to revamp my old web site but one problem still exists. I have some mental blocks regarding the ALW musical (which I have seen twice) and now the movie based on this musical. This review has given me a lot to think about for my own reviews and I appreciate it very much.

    One thing for sure, Gerard Butler is a very "sexy Phantom" but his voice is far too weak. I noticed that one from the start and it seems to be a common problem in casting the Phantom for almost any musical. In Leroux's book, his voice is described as "other-worldly" and even Christine, after realizing she has been deceived, openly admits she cannot leave him because he is "The Voice." It leads me to expect something more among the lines of Fernando Lima, not Michael Bolton. But... what are you going to do? :/

    There are some excellent emotional parts that work for me, though and I do think that at least in some cases, ALW borrowed the best from all the previous movies. The last scene, in the graveyard when it all goes black-and-white again, is a very emotional moment for me. Yet my mental blocks occur because I sensed "something missing" that I could not explain. I'm not a professional reviewer, just Erik's forever-faithful audience member, so insightful, intelligent reviews are difficult for me to write.

    I digress and I should save some of this for my web site. *L*

    I'll be back to study it a bit further.

  12. Olivia says:

    First off: BlankFrank; You're hilarious.

    Secondly, I would like to point out several mistakes that occurred during filming that I personally find hilarious and I'm not sure if the second one was done on purpose for scandalousness.
    First of all, why is there a large camera-shadow moving across Butler's and Rossum's faces during "The Music of the Night"? What the hell is up with that?
    Second of all, what happened to Christine's stockings between the time that she fainted (that was quite a good faint, too) after "The Music of the Night" and the time that she woke up (Scene: "I Remember/ Stranger Than You Dreamt It")??? That was even weirder.
    However, I was enchanted by the movie because the costumes, the sets, the actors and actresses themselves, and their voices, were beautiful. Yes, Patrick Wilson's face didn't show enough expression, and when it did the expressions made no sense, yes, Emmy Rossum often lacked emotion in her face while singing, and yes, Gerard Butler showed excellent facial and vocal emotion while singing. I completely disagree with the opinion expressed that his voice was "too lightweight"; after all, if the Phantom's voice truly matched the anguish he'd experienced in his life, he'd be fairly howling his lines, for Christ's sake; and also, the "growling" you mentioned was meant to show passion and emotion, not lack of vocal talent. Yes, though, his makeup was not strong enough to truly fit the fact that he was a freak in a circus and wears a mask. I agree with you on that point. Oh, and I LIKED the freaky camera angles. Hummph. (LOL.)

  13. Winter says:

    This is in response to #4 Virginia

    You mentioned that there isn't a women in the world who does not love Gerard Butler in this part and i am here to prove you wrong.

    I have always loved the music of The Phantom of the Opera and have always wanted to go see it on stage, but knew that my chances of that were very slim. So when this movie came out I figured this was as close to the stage as i would get. Even without seeing it live and therefor having nothing to compare this to, I could Clearly see the casting was all wrong, especially Butler and Rossum (I exclude Minnie Driver from this statement). I strongly agree with everything that Eric said in this review.

    Also, I believe when he was talking about the music, I don't think he was talking about way it's written, I believe he meant the way it was portrayed. If I am correct I agree, if not, I am confused on that part.

    All in All, I think they should redo this movie with better actors and a better director. Although I do agree with #6 and that the masquerade scene was awesome.

  14. He says, She says says:

    Suzanna, just because actors and directors "worked really hard" does not mean they're good.

  15. Tim says:

    "I think the filming was expertise. It never stayed in one place for to long."

    Bu-- Ahhh, forget it...

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