The Phantom Menace

Joel Schumacher mucks up Andrew Lloyd Webber. Only his phans will be shocked and disappointed.

It should've been the perfect match for a guilty pleasure: Joel Schumacher helming the adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (which opens Wednesday, Dec. 22, at the Guild 45 and other theaters). We're talking about a director responsible for two crap Batman sequels meeting the composer who thought it'd be a fab idea for cats and trains to break into song onstage. It's like introducing McDonald's to Burger King—surely the one can appreciate the vulgar appeal of the other. So why, dammit, is Phantom so bloody tiresome? Oh, it starts out as hoot-worthy as you'd like. It's 1919—which cinematographer John Mathieson grandly envisions as a silver-tinged daguerreotype—and a bunch of solemn fogies, including Patrick Wilson and Miranda Richardson in old-age makeup, are attending an auction at a decayed opera house in Paris. A mammoth, musty chandelier is unveiled, and the auctioneer, in a voice full of portent, intones, "Some of you may recall the strange affair of . . . the Phantom of the Opera!" Suddenly, the cobwebs blow back over the seats of the auditorium and color seeps into the picture and ooh! aah! we're back in the theater as it was in 1870. Now it's dress rehearsal at the Opera Populaire, and diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) walks out on the show after yet another mysterious "accident" threatens her life, foisting limpid young chorus girl Christine (Emmy Rossum, Mystic River) onto center stage as a replacement. Christine, see, has been tutored over the years by the heavy- breathing ministrations of the enamored, unseen Phantom (Gerard Butler), a disfigured musical maestro who's haunted the theater ever since ballet mistress Madame Giry (Richardson) rescued him from his childhood enslavement in a carnival's freak show. "'E ees an arch-i-tect of dee-sire," Madame later explains to Christine's jealous suitor, the viscount Raoul de Chagny (Wilson). "A gee-nius." "Clearly, Madame Giry, genius has turned to madness," responds the viscount. Clearly. But not mad enough, I'm afraid. You'd hope that a film featuring a phantom, a viscount, some gloppy pop opera, and Miranda Richardson with a gluey French accent would get really juicy and over the top, yet Schumacher has almost everybody approaching the material with Method-like severity. He seems to think he's adapting the Holy Grail, and not some sopping '80s Broadway bunk bound for the Lifetime Channel. Only Driver—and Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds as her desperate bosses—seems to have any idea that there's fun to be had here. Driver (whose singing is dubbed, unlike the rest of the cast) is silly and screechy and pretty damn amusing having Callas-sized tantrums in an accent that makes Richardson's sound full of Meryl Streep subtleties. Phantom is ho-hum from there on out, however—good-looking, mildly diverting, but sapped of nearly all of its cheesy charms. Rossum holds the same expression—vague, vapid concern—for the entire picture; it's hard to believe her wan helplessness inspires both Butler's monotonous howling and the creamy but rather dull protestations of Wilson's viscount. Rossum's voice hits the high notes, yet her face never does; she mews all of her spoken dialogue in a reverent whisper. Butler, his obsession for Rossum turning murderous at random, bites into his crazed caped crusader role without enough indication that a guy who hangs around a theater wearing a nifty mask (how does that stay on, by the way?) might be a flamboyant fellow. (The Phantom could have used the hot breath of Antonio Banderas, once considered for the role, who proved in the film version of Webber's Evita that more is sometimes more.) Wilson, a fine actor, looks even more gorgeous than he did as the closeted Mormon in HBO's Angels in America. But he's apparently sworn to keep a cap on his emotions here, too, as if he'd done a lot of research on 19th-century viscounts and learned they were a levelheaded lot. Even when he picks up Rossum and swirls her around during their big duet, "All I Ask of You," he doesn't look overjoyed. Couldn't Schumacher have asked a little more of them? With previous musical experience limited to a screenplay credit for 1978's dreary The Wiz, Schumacher doesn't know what to do when faced with Webber's inactive melodies. They're catchy, bombastic songs that go nowhere but up and down and up again, so Schumacher sends everybody running into dark hallways, staircases, and corridors where you can't see anybody's mouth. Even in the most intimate of numbers, he's often cutting away from the person singing, insisting instead that the real drama is elsewhere. It makes for frustrating viewing: Who wants to see a musical in which the songs are the last things on anybody's mind?

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