Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra stands as a monument to Second Empire excess: cherubs, caryatids, mosaics, 10 kinds of marble, six types of limestone, gold, onyx, turquoise, bronze—and that’s just the foyer. Rumors of an underground lake (nothing as mundane as a flooded basement) inspired Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, which begat that other monument to excess, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s perennial tuner, starring a lighting fixture.
For the film version, however, the Palais Garnier was just too shabby. In the press notes, director Joel Schumacher dismisses it as “a huge municipal building with a bureaucratic feel.” So he built a bigger, gaudier soundstage opera house, with a larger, shinier product-placement chandelier. It’s emblematic of Schumacher’s super-size approach to the material. Say what you will of Harold Prince’s 1988 Broadway production, but there’s something irresistible about his stage wizardry. What little there is in terms of story—a shadowy figure who tries to lure an up-and-coming soprano away from the opera’s new benefactor—served merely as an excuse for Lord Lloyd Webber’s pernicious earworms. Prince’s magic covered the show’s many flaws—thin plot, pedestrian lyrics, and schmaltzy derivative score—like so much mechanical fog. Schumacher enlarges them. Louder, longer, flashier than its predecessor, this Phantom‘s an overblown mess of ostentatious razzmatazz. Sure, all the ingredients of camp are there (oh, the hubris!), but this isn’t a so-bad-it’s-good classic. It’s worse.
Schumacher, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lord Lloyd Webber, re-enacts the highlights of Prince’s staging, to no avail: Coups de théâtre—actors plunging into a dark abyss, candelabra rising from the mist—look run-of-the-mill onscreen. Following the movie-musical adaptation handbook, they reshuffle scenes, prolong laughably bad dialogue, and tack on the requisite Oscar-qualifying original song, but still keep the insufferable disco-kitschy title number. None of this helps. They give the Phantom a new backstory, which belongs to the Elephant Man, who wants it back, preferably before David Lynch calls his lawyer. The Phantom’s subterranean lair gets a makeover, but the soprano’s first visit, a love duet aboard a gondola, now has all the romance of a Disneyland ride. All the while, Schumacher keeps his camera gliding, tilting, swooping, falling askew, either to create an air of mystery or the better to see all the pretty setsand costumes.
In fact, the scariest thing here is the Phantom’s opera version of Don Juan (wait, didn’t Mozart write one already? Never mind). If Bob Fosse had a recurring nightmare of being forced to stage a flamenco show in Vegas, this is what it would look like. The only mystery is why, halfway into the biggest production number, the dancers start voguing. Brechtian alienation device? Baz Luhrmann-style pastiche? Homage to the star of Lord Lloyd Webber’s previous film? Who cares?
For the most part, the ensemble proves that films, unlike Broadway mega-musicals, aren’t cast-proof. As the masked man, Gerard Butler twirls a mean cape. But his breathy sprechstimme, overamplified in a vain effort to evoke menace and charisma, clambers up to cringe-inducing climaxes. Crank up the reverb all you want; he simply doesn’t have the pipes. (Shooting his big number in front of an organ must be someone’s idea of a cruel joke.) He’s generically charmless and about as spooky as, well, cats. Not that there’s much competition. Patrick Wilson’s Vicompte dresses and sounds as though he were auditioning for the Les Misérables movie. Unsurprisingly, Emmy Rossum’s Christine doesn’t look mesmerized by the Phantom or enamored with the Vicompte so much as heavily sedated. Mouth agape, she wanders wide-eyed through her role as if through a Vicodin haze, hoping her lovely Met-trained voice will drown out her non-acting. Casting directors should know by now what countless bad musicals have shown: Just because you can carry a tune doesn’t mean you can carry a whole movie.
What they have learned is the benefits of luxury casting, the opera term for assigning minor roles to bigger stars. So we get Miranda Richardson, saddled with an ooh-là-là Maurice Chevalier accent that begs for subtitles (even though the rest of the French characters speak standard costume-movie English). And Minnie Driver, whose Callas eyebrows and outlandish gowns single her out as the only performer on the same camp wavelength as Schumacher, feasts on the elaborate sets as the house diva. She almost stops the show. I wish she had.