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Do You Hear the People Argue: Vulture Fights It Out Over Les Miz

From time to time, there are issues so divisive that they threaten to tear apart the entire Vulture staff and, if left untended, could destroy the very fabric of reality as we know it. It is incumbent on us, then, to address these issues in a manner befitting their extreme importance. Today's hot topic: Was Les Misérables any good at all? Amanda Dobbins and Kyle Buchanan will now hash it out.

KYLE: Amanda, at last, we see each other plain! It’s time to debate an issue that’s nearly as polarizing as whether it’s spelled Les Mis or Les Miz, one that will have fans arguing for decades to come: Is the new Les Misérables movie actually any good? On this question, once again, I am the kind-hearted Valjean to your harumph-filled Javert, since I genuinely liked the film. I felt all of the feelings; I didn’t mind the way it was shot; I laughed when I was meant to, bawled when the Bishop sang, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” and didn’t even hate Russell Crowe all that much. I know that you feel differently; I knew this when, after you left the Les Miz press screening, you immediately e-mailed me a brief missive stating only “Tom Hooper ruined Christmas.” I should also note that I was at Disneyland when I received the e-mail, and perhaps that indicates a key difference in our personalities. (Valjean would love Disneyland! Javert would spend all his time monitoring the funnel-cake vendor for malfeasance and theft.)

AMANDA: Before we move to the negativity, I would like it on the record that I love Disneyland. In fact, something I want to emphasize is that I am not a monster: I have all of the emotions, too many of them, probably, and that is why Les Misérables the musical has always been important to me. But I stand by my first e-mail — Tom Hooper ruined Christmas, and also that bleak post-screening subway ride, during which an entire A train car was treated to my loud cursing. I hated this movie. Specifically, I hated the way that Tom Hooper made this movie, with his infuriating close-ups and swoop-cams and random butterflies. Everything that ended up on the screen is something that I could have seen — with a better quality of singing and a more comfortable distance from the singer’s nostrils — on the 10th or 25th Anniversary Concert Specials. Which is what I still do not understand about this so-called adaptation: Isn’t the whole point to fully realize the world described in the source material? We finally see the barricade! Paris! The giant ship in all its glory! But no, not in Tom Hooper’s copy-and-paste nightmare. Instead, we get exactly one wide shot of the barricade, a laughably CGIed boat, and maddening glimpses of a beautiful world that he created before zooming in on Anne Hathaway’s under-eye creases for two hours-plus. It was infuriating.

KYLE: Before you say another word, Amanda, listen to me. There is something I must do: defend the way that Tom Hooper has shot this film. I am surprised that most people were surprised by it! Didn’t we all see The King’s Speech together? (A film, I should add, that I was not really taken with; I actually prefer Les Misérables.) I knew, based on that movie, that Hooper’s take on Les Miz would involve a lot of fish-eye close-ups and artfully paint-chipped walls, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. Now, the trouble with a beloved property like Les Misérables is that fans have been picturing the movie version of this material for ages; at 15 years old, I could have storyboarded for you a pretty awesome big-screen sequence for “On My Own.” Hooper’s version doesn’t conform to those closely held visions, and it’s not a placid Masterpiece Theatre take, either. Instead, it’s truly gonzo, swoop-in filmmaking, and I appreciated the way it aggressively shakes up and enlivens the material. I also responded to the live, on-set singing. What it lacks in a smoothly delivered sing-along way it more than makes up for in emotion, discovery, and sheer performance. I’m guessing you were not a fan.

AMANDA: That is correct; I couldn’t disagree more when it comes to the “enlivening” filmmaking. I was deeply bored during parts of this movie, and it was obviously not because I didn’t care for the songs or wished that Javert would just chill out already about a goddamn loaf of bread. The repetitiveness of the close-ups undermined any emotion they were supposed to convey, in my opinion; I found myself counting wrinkles or examining eyebrow shapes. You are right to note that Tom Hooper’s reputation precedes him, but I thought the stubborn single-shot approach was ludicrous even for him. (Can you imagine being the studio executive who gets a cut of this? “We built a million-dollar barricade for what? Are there any other takes?!”) Still, you bring up an important point, which is that I went into Les Misérables as an ardent fan of the musical. Yes, my expectations were high, and yes, the nature of my reaction (rage) is colored by my attachment to the material. But my complaints are still based on quality, and I was not the only person who took issue with the way this movie was shot. (See: basically every review written, including David Edelstein’s.) Now is probably the time to mention that I also agree with the critics about the singing — it was generally mediocre, and plain bad when Russell Crowe was involved. Why did you enjoy him so, Kyle?

KYLE: Well, I always kind of minimize the one-note Javert when it comes to Les Misérables — some people claim that “Stars” is the best song in the musical, but they’re like contrarian siblings bragging to your parents, “Well, I like vegetables!” — so Crowe was not a deal-breaker for me. In every other respect, I thought the film was very smartly cast. Hugh Jackman was God. Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit should star in a prequel web series about the adventures of Marius and Enjolras. Amanda Seyfried’s voice ought to be made into an adorable little bird that you put in the nice cage in the front of the pet store. Though some haters are dissing the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen is genuinely funny (a relief, since his The Dictator performance was so laughless), and Helena Bonham Carter is my spirit animal, so I will brook no dissent. And this takes us to Anne Hathaway. I know that she is a divisive person. She is very theatrical. People love to slag on her; e.g. Buzzfeed’s eye-rollingly lazy “Why Do People Hate Anne Hathaway?” post. But this is a very strong performance, in part because it’s so bravely out there that it risks parody. In her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” she taps into genuinely raw nihilism, self-pity, and anger, which certainly wasn't what I was expecting from a song that's been made so safe over the past two decades.

AMANDA: Let us start with a rare moment of agreement: Eddie Redmayne is a treasure, and his “Empty Chairs” was genuinely moving, despite the fact that Tom Hooper’s evil camera plan highlighted a remarkably shaky chin. (You can’t unsee it, and I am sorry for that.) I think you might also be right about the casting — I wanted to see Wolverine sing “Bring Him Home” as much as any human — and I blame the shakier moments on the live-singing gamble, which would’ve been just fine had Hooper given us anything else to look at while Seyfried was botching her high notes. But I will not go with you to the Hathaway place. I am in the minority on this, but her “Dream” was actual parody to me, grabby and flailing and false (especially when it comes to self-pity). I can tell you the moment that I started laughing, mostly out of shock: It was when she hit that magical “I had a dream my life would beeeee,” and a single tear rolled down her cheek on cue. You could see the performance, and I just wanted to feel the feeling.

KYLE: Speaking of tears: Did you cry? Admit it, you did.

AMANDA: I teared up during “Bring Him Home.” Look, I am powerless against that song. Goat Yelling Like a Man could sing it and I’d cry. But this is what amazed me about Les Miz: Hooper was working with what I believe to be perfect source material, a dynamite cast, beautiful scenery (didn’t Digne look pretty before that dumb piece of paper floated away?) and still he managed to turn in a clunker. It was so bad that even “Bring Him Home” couldn’t save it.

KYLE: I’m really fascinated by the fact that even detractors are crying during the film: At the very end of his Les Miz pan, even Time critic Richard Corliss admits that he teared up several times. Obviously, a film’s ability to move you to tears doesn’t necessarily connote quality, though I feel like I’m being awfully generous in conceding that point, since I can’t name for you a single film I hated that genuinely made me cry (in the intended way, at least). But in any case, though I hear Hooper and Co. have been shocked by the polarizing response their film has engendered, I don’t think they should have been — it’s not like Les Misérables was a critical favorite when it opened on the stage either. There’s something about a boldly unironic, emotionally in-your-face (in the film’s case, that's meant literally) production that makes it an easy target for tomatoes, but for me, it was a relief to see a movie musical really go for it instead of pulling back and planting the numbers under an artificial proscenium arch, Rob Marshall–style. I realize that many Les Miz fans dreamed a dream so different from this film they’re seeing, but the simple fact that this well-tilled material was still able to surprise and polarize on the screen makes me like it all the more. You’ll always have the stage production and Broadway cast recordings if you want to listen something more traditional; in the meantime, I encourage you to turn from hating, Valjean-style, to embrace a film production that is definitely wild and weird and woolly, and all the better for it.

Photo: Universal Pictures