Lurking in the basement

Film version of hit Andrew Lloyd Webber musical falls flat

ME AND MY SHADOW Emmy Rossum as Christine is tailed by her personal stalker the Phantom (Gerard Butler) in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical <i>The Phantom of the Opera</i>.

ME AND MY SHADOW Emmy Rossum as Christine is tailed by her personal stalker the Phantom (Gerard Butler) in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom of the Opera
Starring Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson and Minnie Driver. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Rated PG-13.
Rated 1.0

Well, folks, it was a squeaker, but here we have easily the worst film of 2004, a Yuletidal wave of cinematic mendacity. Catwoman was the odds on favorite for most of the stretch, but in the end it was handicapped by the “So-bad-that-it’s-kinda-funny” factor. This adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London and Broadway blockbuster is so interminable and tin-eared that it is just intolerable. Imagine if Titanic went seriously off-course, collided with Moulin Rouge and sank slowly with Beauty and the Beast standing in for Jack and Rose. Except that Jack doesn’t die here. Damn it all.

The plot is thin, almost as thin as the actors’ singing: Amid flashbacks within flashbacks, orphaned Christine is taken under the wing of the eponymous Phantom, who teaches her to warble like a canary and unseat the Opera House swallow to reign as house diva. Childhood sweetheart enters stage left, romantic triangle ensues. The Phantom throws a sociopathic hissy-fit and dumps a chandelier on the audience as the theater burns down … but doesn’t. Then comes the only redemptive moment of the film: FADE TO BLACK.

So what we have here is about a half-hour of exposition bloated out with two hours of unmemorable elevator music, mawkish lyrics interspersed with lines of dialogue delivered in sing-song fashion in order to maintain “musical” status. Aside from the anachronistic Eurotrash beat of the title track (the intro of which I could swear was lifted from horror director Dario Argento’s Phenomena), there isn’t a single bar of music that has any more substance than a cell phone ring-tone.

To be fair, I’m not judging the stage musical here. I haven’t seen it. I have heard some tracks from the original production, and the vocals of Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford give me the impression that they carried the show. The fresh-faced refugees from UPN featured here are akin to Tori Spelling appearing in Anne Frank: The Musical. Yes, even the Phantom, beneath his dainty little mask, is fresh-faced, despite spending 20-odd years out of daylight in the bowels of the opera (although it is amusing how his “deformity” explodes across his face when unmasked). It is cringe-inducing as the kids try to hit notes that are clearly out of their range; a little Ashlee Simpson lip-sync action applied here would have been perfectly acceptable.

On the face of it, adapting Gaston Leroux’s 1908 potboiler into a Broadway production was inspired, a way to break down the fourth wall and use the audience as an organic element of the experience. Unfortunately, Webber chose to homogenize the material, scraping away the integral Grand Guignol elements to leave nothing more than a tepid disposable hanky for menopausal housewives to take back to Indiana as proof that they have an appreciation for The Arts.

Of course, the perversities he substitutes are a bit more unnerving, a subtext of incest made overt, from Christine’s perceived father-figure, the Phantom, copping a feel from her at any given opportunity, to his own presumptive illegitimate daughter’s pursuit of him flush-faced into the end credits.

Ham-fisted director Joel Schumacher is clearly out of his element, applying his action flick ethos to a project that demanded an eye for grandeur, not a misapplied approach to a traditional concept of spectacle. His choice in casting speaks volumes: slack-jawed wannabes standing in for “too-bad-they’re-too-old” real singers. Only Minnie Driver as the house Prima Donna appears to be having fun, as the rest maintain a deer-in-the-headlights look as they scramble for that out-of-reach note.

Schumacher would have been better off if he had cribbed more notes from Moulin Rouge (which at least maintained a certain joie de vivre) rather than the lumbering spectacle of Titanic.