Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenwriters: Gaston Leroux
Starring: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson
The Phantom of the Opera is an awful play. Atrocious. The story, to the extent that it exists, makes absolutely no sense. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, while sometimes tuneful, is hollow hackwork, its lyrics a mockery of what we call “songwriting” (funny thing, too, as Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of my favorite musicals). But on the stage, where the chandelier falls and shatters before your very eyes and underground canals are somehow simulated on a dry surface, you can forgive these things for the sake of the spectacle. You don’t see this done right in front of you every day, after all.
On screen, though — at least as imagined by one Joel Schumacher — the spectacle is gone, and the play’s myriad flaws come to the fore. The insane popularity of the play can largely be ascribed to the appeal of a skillful, impressive live show. There is no reason to see this movie.
The opening scenes, in which a black-and-white flash-forward turns to color as the infamous chandelier is raised and lit to the impressive opening bars of the play’s main theme, are dynamic and engaging, bordering on exciting. At the very least, they are promising — hey, maybe Schumacher can imbue this production with some style and grandeur and at least not make the sit downright painful. The only way to do this successfully, I think, would be to push it over the top, to throw in so many visual surprises that we fail to get distracted by the fact that the story is complete nonsense. I think I would volunteer to watch a Baz Luhrmann Phantom.
No, though: this version is every bit as dull as you might expect from Schumacher, though the much-maligned director managed to actually come up with something vaguely energetic in the overwrought Phone Booth. Here, his biggest mistake is simply keeping the camera still; watching characters break into song can be stirring, but when they’re just standing there in front of an unmoving camera it tends to just be hokey. Schumacher mostly translates the old stage show with as little imagination as possible, with even the sets bearing a striking similarity to what was seen on Broadway.
The stage is not the screen, and those expecting an experience tantamount to seeing the live production are in for an enormous disappointment. The “plot” affords countless opportunities to create something of stark physical beauty, a world that’s haunting and not quite real. Inexplicably, Schumacher and his crew choose to go for naturalism, of all things; with few exceptions, the sets look like what they’re supposed to be emulating. The opera house is a dead ringer for an opera house; the canals look just like underground canals; with the exception of a few mechanical candles, the Phantom’s lair looks just like a cave. What’s the point? Is anyone taking this story seriously? Why not show us something we’ve never seen before?
One might as well point out that the music, when removed from its natural habitat, is terrible. The main theme — the notes you think of when you think of Phantom — still resonates, especially when spiked with a tinge of electronica as it is here, but everything else is laughable. “Music of the Night” is entirely nonsensical; look up the lyrics and explain to me how the song fits or what the hell it is about in the context of the play. Much of the rest of it is just sung dialogue, not only without lyrical structure but lacking so much as a tune. I suppose I should thank the movie for bringing all this to my attention.
There has been a lot of buzz around Emmy Rossum, the little-known youngster who landed the plum role of Christine. In non-Phantom photos, she’s downright beautiful; made-up to look like a mannequin, however, she is nearly frightening. Her performance is inexpressive, emotionless and dull, much like the movie around her; she spends a stunning amount of time standing still and I was wondering why nobody told her to do something. Gerard Butler is marginally better in the title role, though oddly enough his mask didn’t seem to fit very well — cutbacks in the prop department?
I do not despise Joel Schumacher like so many others seem to do, but this is a movie that needed someone else. The Phantom of the Opera does not look good, it does not sound good, and it is an astonishing bore.