Tom Hooper's Les Misérables lives up to its name. With the exception of about 10 minutes, the nearly three-hour film is an endless wallow in the fields of squalor, filth, chancre and herpes.
Les Miz is an '80s French musical derived from Victor Hugo's humanitarian novel of the same name. Hugo's novel, already a doorstop weepie, is in musical form a bathetic pressure washer loaded with human tears. In Hooper's (The King's Speech) loose directorial grip, this water cannon jerks itself around as in an old Looney Tunes cartoon, spraying the world with salty liquid.
As the saintly thief-gone-noble Jean Valjean pursued by the relentless Javert (Russell Crowe) through the streets of 19th-century France, Hugh Jackman is a terrifically convincing physical presence. But he is hobbled by Hooper's decision to have the actors sing every line. Jackman is more a song-and-dance man than a balladeer, and his trilling over-enunciation bleeds his character of any possible nuance. Crowe, likewise, sounds less like a punctilious follower of the law than a bar-band bellower who needs a drink.
It's the film's faithfulness to the musical that does it in. Despite some expensive-looking overhead shots of degraded French life, Hooper's epic film is smaller in scope than the stage it came from: It is centered doggedly on the suffering found in a human face.
In the case of Anne Hathaway as the dying prostitute Fantine, this is a wise decision. She becomes a Jeanne D'Arc figure, ruined and beatific, sobbingly and haltingly wresting "I Dreamed a Dream" from Susan Boyle with the imperfections of her rendition (the actors sang live on film, with a sometimes grating pitchiness).
But when a musical is adapted to the more-human-than-human scale of the filmic close-up, it succeeds transcendentally or not at all. About halfway through Les Miz, the movie's entire world orgasms with one giant money note shared by the entire cast. But after this, it continues hammering flaccidly away for over an hour, long past when we've lost interest and are approaching disgust.
Les Miz is, more than anything, painfully obvious Oscar bait. In shooting relentlessly for a statuette, Hooper makes all of humanity into much the same thing: heavy and small, shining on the surface but just plain dead on the inside.
Critic's Grade: D
SEE IT: Les Misérables is rated PG-13. It's playing at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Fox Tower, Moreland, Bridgeport, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Tigard.