A film review by Craig J. Koban

ANDREW LLOYD WEBER'S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA jjj

2004, PG-13, 145 mins.

Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum Patrick Wilson, Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson

Directed by Joel Schumacher /  Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber / Written by Schumacher and Webber

To say that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a phenomenon seems like a grand understatement.  I can’t think of one contemporary fan of the dramatic arts, serious or lay, that has not heard of it. 

I for one will admit to having never been exposed to this “phenom” on the live stage, which I guess is really where it's truly meant to be seen.  The only PHANTOM OF THE OPERA that I have really digested is the Lon Chaney 1925 film version which - for its time and even a bit now - created a reasonably frightening and disfigured figure in The Phantom.  That film knew that this figure was one to be sort of feared for the monster that he really was. 

Maybe that is kind of the problem that I have with Webber’s concept of the stage musical, which has just recently been adapted by director Joel Schumacher in the new $60 million dollar production: The Phantom is not much of a monster that is frightening.  In the Schumacher’s hand, he looks more like a GQ male model who has a remarkably great set of vocal cords despite the fact that he lives a substandard existence as a disfigured ghoul that dwells in underground catacombs.  I guess, on this simple level, the film version (and all stage versions, I am assuming) sort of miss the boat about the title character.  Really, does a hellish phantom need to reek of sex appeal and have chiseled features (at least his one good side) that can make any lady’s heart race? 

Where's the "horror" in that? 

Schumacher and Webber’s PHANTOM is not a horror film on any real level like the 1925 Chaney version.  That film at least had the perseverance to identify with the underlying sense of dread and revulsion that are The Phantom’s key characteristics.  There is nothing really altogether repulsive about this newer stage and film Phantom.  You really in no way shape or form feel any amount of personal pity for him.  For Chaney’s Phantom, you sort of did, as he was a horrid and gruesome figure of the shadows that fed off of  his own desperate love for a young opera singer. In this way that film became more grandiose in its tragedy and disparity that the newer incarnation completely fails at. 

With his apparently rugged good looks and smooth and icy charisma, the “newer” Phantom looks like he would have no problem scoring with any woman of his choice.  And besides, what woman would not be intrigued by a seemingly handsome and mysterious man that lives in shadows, wears black like he was strutting down a runway, and sports a mask that comes across as some sort of weird fetishistic costume jewellery that Derrick Zoolander would find really, really good-looking?   

Okay, maybe I am being somewhat hard on this “re-imagining” of the original vision of The Phantom.  After all, the stage and film version is more or less a love triangle story than one of horror.  Yet, the melodrama inherent in the story is also kind of disengaging and featureless, at least in Schumacher’s hands.  It’s the standard formulaic stuff that has been done countless times before: Mysterious man loves woman; woman loves other man; mysterious man tries to seduce woman; woman comes to her senses and chooses the other man and the mysterious man, as a result, goes on the rampage in which no one will be spared.  It would really take some invention and wit to make this basic convention feel alive with life, but in this PHANTOM, it’s really a paint-by-numbers emotional journey that you really never feel yourself getting thoroughly engulfed in. 

Having said all of that, it would appear that my ranting is definitely leaning towards an overwhelmingly negative review.  Maybe I should re-clarify a few things before I continue. 

There is no doubt that after watching Schumacher’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA that I found it to be a completely underwhelming, not to mention a dramatically and emotionally negligible experience.  I never once became really occupied in the story it had to tell nor did the characters inspire me.  Yet, despite the film’s leanings as being expressively inert with its story of romance, I can’t deny two facts that kind of save the film from catastrophe.  The first being the film’s incredibly extravagant and joyous opulence with its visuals and art direction.  This is probably the best-looking screen musical since MOULIN ROGUE.  Also, there is no denying that Emmy Rossum (who was, astonishingly, only 16 when she filmed her scenes) is a remarkable talent.  She sings all of her own songs, has the looks of an angel, and has the voice that shows a maturity and range far beyond her age.  She single-handedly kept me in my seat and completely carries the films that would have otherwise been a lethargic wasteland in less talented hands.  She definitely has a huge future ahead of her. 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, as a film product, was not an easy production to bring to the screen.  In actuality, it was in the planning stages for nearly two decades.  It was originally slated to be to be filmed in 1990 and was to star Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, the original stars of the stage version.  However, an untimely divorce between Brightman and her then husband Webber put the screen version on hold.  In the intervening years, several actors were considered for the role of The Phantom, including John Travolta (yikes) and Antonio Banderas (better), who actually vocally trained for a significant period for the role.  The role eventually went to a Scotsman named Gerald Butler, whose only previous, recent, and noteworthy film credits were the disastrous TIMELINE and LAURA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE.  Butler has the looks and charm of a leading man, and is completely serviceable in the film in terms of his singing. 

As for the actually story itself, the musical basically concerns an up and coming opera singer in the late 19th Century named Christine (Rossum), who has been secretly meeting with the ominous and enigmatic Phantom (Butler), who is acting as her musical muse, of sorts.  Of course, the masked and “hideous” Phantom is not your average 1870’s boy next door, as he dresses like Dracula, wears a mask that covers half of his face, and lives in cramped and congested caves. Oh, and he was abused as a circus freak as a child.  Okay, if you want to desperately manipulate sympathy for a character, terribly bad profile from one side...nah.  Circus freak abused whipped as a kid...BINGO!   

Needless to say, The Phantom absolutely worships the ground that young Christine walks on, but he forever hides his “scared” face for fear that she will not love him back for his “horrendous disfigurement”.  In the meantime, he tries to make her a superstar on stage.  When Christine becomes a hit to the contemporary viewing public, she slowly begins to drift back to her childhood sweetheart named Raoul (Patrick Wilson).  Of course, this drives the “monster” into a frenzy of hatred, bitterness, and fiery jealousy and he begins a plot with terrible repercussions for all. 

Cue dramatic Webberian music here. 

The film musical just has no real enticing elements for me to really grasp on to.  Yes, this type of melodramatic love triangle has been done countless times before, but more recent examples like THE NOTEBOOK took the conventions to a new higher, more agreeable and manipulative level.  I never once during the course of PHANTOM felt very engaged in any of the characters on a truly consequential level.  Also, the “hideous” Phantom is not a creature for which any amount of sympathy is drawn to him.  If anything, The Phantom here is really more or less a stalkerish figure that, despite one quarter of his face that needs a shot of Botox, he really is a strikingly handsome male suitor.  You never once pity him because you never feel that he has no chance in hell with Christine.  With Chaney’s Phantom, he never had a prayer in the world with a young opera babe, but with Butler’s square jaw magnetism…see what I am getting at?

Along with the story and character deficiencies, am I the only one that thinks PHANTOM is a substandard musical?  Outside of its main theme and a few infamous ballads, nothing really distinguishes the music as being special or memorable.  The music lacks spirit, the characters  lack density, and the story is too tired and old, and it goes on for 30 minutes longer than it should (the film is an ordeal at 145 minutes). 

Yet, I just can’t refute the fact that Schumacher is an audacious filmmaker with a real visual reverence and sense of style for taking on an equally flamboyant project.  PHANTOM reveals just how much variety Schumacher has demonstrated with his recent career.  He directed the military film TIGERLAND, a low budget masterpiece, the completely involving thriller PHONE BOOTH, as well as the tense and morbid 8mm, the first two which I thought were among the best films of their respective years.  PHANTOM seems like an awkward transition, but it really isn’t.  Schumacher has always been a gifted screen visualist that consistently creates interest with his moody and atmospheric techniques.   Look at his past films like FLATLINERS, with its dark and luring cinematography, or THE LOST BOYS, an equally macabre work about teenage vampires.  Even his most recent film about the Caped Crusaders themselves, BATMAN AND ROBIN, was impressive for its effects and eye candy, despite being the cinematic rape of the Batman franchise as a whole.    

PHANTOM is a visual feast that is well contained in Schumacher’s hands.  There are many memorable sights to behold and drink in during the course of the film: deep underground catacombs; glorious and grand masked balls; exterior gothic architecture that is filmed with just a hint of film noir; as well as one beautifully shot segment of Christine singing during a production where the lush and gorgeous lighting heightens the angelic qualities of Rossum’s voice and natural good looks.  The costumes, set pieces, and cinematography are all Oscar calibre, and Schumacher offers up one tremendous visual after another. 

The film’s outstanding aesthetic, combined with the tour de force and breakout performance by Emmy Rossum, make up for the film’s weaknesses.  Almost all of the actors sing their roles in the film (with the one exception of Mini Driver, which becomes painfully and awkwardly apparent very soon), but it is Rossum that is the glue that holds the film together.  Her performance, and remarkably assured voice, carries the film's otherwise mediocre material. 

So, I guess that I am marginally recommending ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  It genuinely fails at being the psychological and gothic horror story that it could and should have been, and it also lacks success as a romantic melodrama with any discernable interest.  However, the film is a rousing triumph as an accomplished visual spectacle, and in Schumacher’s confident eyes the film is an endless playground into a series of magical and hauntingly beautiful images.  Not only that, but it highlights a major, major talent in Emmy Rossum.  This film PHANTOM is, paradoxically, a noble shame.  It's an impressively mounted visual odyssey with a truly standout performance.  It's a film that could have achieved greatness with more involvement in telling a improved story with more unforgettable music.  Yet, Schumacher’s film accomplishes some modest achievements, and is never dull as a visual epic.

 

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