Phantom Menace

Joel Schumacher's version of a theater classic gets a tragic ending of its own

Dec 22, 2004 at 4:00 am
By all accounts, the only living creatures who've never taken in a stage production of The Phantom of the Opera are Osama bin Laden and Uncle Elmer's deaf hound dog Bart -- which means that everyone else on the planet has an opinion about how Joel Schumacher's zillion-dollar movie version of the enduring Andrew Lloyd Webber hit should look, and how it should play. Here are a couple of news flashes. An inveterate tinkerer, Lloyd Webber has added one entirely new (but not entirely necessary) song, "Learn to Be Lonely," to the proceedings. And when that famous chandelier crashes into the orchestra pit, it makes a colossal splash and dazzle: The movie's made-to-order, over-the-top hunk of steel and crystal was seventeen feet high and weighed more than two tons.

But then, wretched excess is this screen Phantom's strong suit. In most other ways, it's a major disappointment -- an ear-splitting extravaganza that gallops from one clanging, lavishly costumed setpiece to the next without paying heed to niceties like character development, visual logic or dramatic pacing. The editing is so bad that you feel like you're watching a dozen movies at once. Director Schumacher, who's done his best work with intimate, offbeat dramas like Falling Down and The Client, has never before tackled a musical, and it shows: He seems here to have been seduced by scale and completely baffled by the logistics of, say, getting two dozen heavily powdered, ornately bewigged Parisian dancers into the frame and out again without it looking like a cross-dressed prison riot. The unhappy spectacle is brought even lower by some godawful, rock-flavored caterwauling from Scotsman Gerard Butler, who provides a Phantom every bit as uncharismatic as he is unmusical. Just a guess, but Lon Chaney could likely have made a gamer stab at "The Point of No Return" -- even though Chaney's deathless 1925 interpretation of Gaston Leroux's tragic anti-hero was silent.

The former Mrs. Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman, who first played the troubled object of the Phantom's affections onstage eighteen years ago, is nowhere to be found, of course. Instead, we get nineteen-year-old Emmy Rossum (Sean Penn's slain daughter in Mystic River), who started taking voice lessons at the Metropolitan Opera when she was seven and has developed into an ethereal soprano. She essays Lloyd Webber's chestnuts with grace and verve. But as a character, Rossum's rising understudy Christine is as strange as Butler's tepid cellar-dweller. Beheld in a constant glow of candlelight and roses, her soft-focus visage looks for the most part as fresh as spring. But script-updaters Lloyd Webber and Schumacher also mean to illuminate Christine's mostly involuntary longing for the tortured demon/genius in the white mask, so there are half a dozen close-ups in which she appears moist-lipped and wide-eyed, giving off the synthetic heat of a Playboy centerfold. Whether this cheapens the show or reinvents it in a bold new light can best be judged by Lloyd Webber fanatics, who are legion; in any case, it's obvious the filmmakers intended to give their heroine a bit more Sex and the City-style carnality -- even though the bulk of the movie's action is still set in 1870.

Butler, whose movie-monster credits already include a Dracula (for Wes Craven) and an Attila the Hun, is so inert and unmagnetic that you may find yourself rooting for Goody Two-shoes. You know, the Count of Chagny. Passably dashing and reasonably adept at swordplay, but just a little dull. As played by Patrick Wilson (a star of TV's Angels in America), Christine's other boyfriend is nothing if not movie-star handsome, and by the time he and Scarface get to duking it out in the dungeon underneath the opera house, the wise viewer will give the points and go with the Forces of Light, even though Darkness is traditionally more appealing. It doesn't say a lot for this Phantom that we come to care about him much, much less than the matchless Chaney, the sympathetic Claude Rains or even the high-camp variation Charles Dance brought to TV in 1990. Meanwhile, you'll absolutely love Minnie Driver's screeching, preening turn as the temperamental diva La Carlotta (voice-dubbed by opera singer Margaret Preece) -- assuming they've let you out of the lockup ward on a day pass.

Obsessive Phantom phans are unlikely to be fazed by any criticism of this chaotic, often ill-sung movie version, and neither is the blindingly self-confident Lloyd Webber, whose personal grandiosity seems to be equaled only by that of his productions. It is said that the composer once asked a collaborator why new people seemed to take an instant dislike to him: "Saves time," the man answered. In any event, The Phantom of the Opera, which has racked up more than 7,000 performances in London and New York and raked in more than $3.2 billion in receipts around the world, isn't about to go away. The next incarnation of the monster will be at a Las Vegas hotel, which is building a separate theater to house a permanent production -- in a new, 90-minute version for short attention spans. Thank heaven for small favors: Schumacher's opus runs two hours and twenty minutes and plays like ten days in the county jail.