There are rules that govern stage performances which do not apply to film. One of them is what I call the three minute rule. If a scene or a song goes on for three minutes or more during a play or a musical, an attentive audience will get caught up in the moment and its short-term memory will re-set, so that time takes second place to cause-and-effect. Instead of asking chronological questions (where does this next scene happen in time?) the audience asks consequential questions (how does this next scene follow from what I’ve just seen?). This is why, when you lay out the plot of Othello in a spreadsheet, it makes no sense, but when you see it in the theatre, it hums like clockwork.
I bring this up because, as I mentioned, film works differently. In film, time takes first place; so when you’re watching a filmed stage musical with mostly songs and multiple locations that takes place over, say, 17 years of real time, simply presenting the scenes and songs one right after the other without layering in some temporal breathing space (wide shots; montage) makes everything look like, well, that Othello spreadsheet. This is why the movie version of Les Miz takes place in a city of almost 2 million inhabitants where the same five people keep bumping into each other once every ten minutes.
It’s also why this film is not what usually passes in movies for real life. Hell, it’s not even what usually passes for larger than life. It's a movie where everything is an emotional moment that starts out at 8 and goes back and forth between there and 10 for the next two hours. Which makes “larger than life” look like a skyscraper in Lilliput. And if you can't take all those 10’s without some 1’s along the way, then you're going to sit there with your arms crossed, wondering why everybody FEELS so much.
As my friend Stacy says, “You either get it or you don’t.” Me, I got it. You? You may hate it. A lot of critics evidently did. But there’s a snobbish snort to a lot of those bad reviews, like all those critics were a bunch of opera buffs who had to sit through Tommy, and were required by law to write 1000 words on how popular culture is not culture, or how Top Hat or The Band Wagon with their overdubbed vocals (and overdubbed tap-dancing taps, for that matter) are what people who want to see a good musical should be watching instead of Guess What. (I’m not joking; go here for the article.) Speaking as someone who absolutely adores The Band Wagon, this is like Mayor Bloomberg telling me how to live my life for my own good. That’s not a review of a film; it’s a nanny lecture married to a therapy session.
If I was reviewing the film? The first half hour is brilliant. I really liked Anne Hathaway. The “Master of the House” number has more cross-cutting and multiple angles than all the other musical numbers combined, which makes it not only stick out, but stick out like somebody dropped it in from the extras disc of Oliver. The last half hour is like the last half-mile in a 5K race: it’s a lot of work to cross that finish line. And (because it’s a film) I realized four things I didn’t notice before about the story (yes, there's a story here):
1. Every main character has someone else as the motivating factor in his or her life. Javert and Valjean live for each other; Fantine lives for Cosette; Eponine lives for Marius; Marius is torn between the revolution and Cosette; Cosette is torn between Marius and Valjean. The only ones who live for themselves are the Thénardiers, and they wear out their filmic welcome pretty quickly, in my opinion.
2. Calling Ivanhoe--here we are again with the mythic battle between the dark lady and the fair lady for the male romantic lead. As usual in this battle, the fair lady is bland and the dark lady is interesting, which is why she gets the ballad that everybody still sings in auditions. Hell, she even changes her sex (symbolically) to hang out at the barricades, like some Hugoistic version of Rosalinde. And of course she has to sacrifice herself like Dietrich in Destry so the blonde-besotted sap she loves can marry Cosette without ever actually having to choose between the two of them.
3. Russell Crowe can act, and Russell Crowe can carry a tune, but he can’t do both at the same time.
4. The ending is deeply ironic. Every dead person in the film, every single one with no tomorrow, is standing on a massive barricade and singing about when tomorrow comes. Not because kings or jailers or the law is a tyrant. Because Life is the tyrant. And death is the only true freedom. Top that, Top Hat.