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"Alas! I am disfigured, monstrous and doomed to be alone! Thank God for roofies."


The Phantom of the Opera
(PG-13, 140 min.)
Wide release

Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

The Phantom of the Opera

Scar power: Big-screen Phantom isn't deep, but the surface dazzles

By Anthony Del Valle

Director Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is all visual opulence, cotton candy entertainment of momentary pleasure. The power of its story has been watered down by some poor casting choices and Schumacher and Webber's surface screenplay. But its lavish production numbers sometimes capture the broad wink of musical comedy in a manner we don't see much anymore.

Hollywood and Broadway just can't seem to leave the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel alone. It's easy to see why. Its plot about a disfigured man begging to be recognized for his inner beauty (his music) is a plea any homely person--or anyone who's been an unwilling outsider for an extend period of time--is likely to respond to.

In Webber's 1988 Broadway version, the phantom really seemed to be a ghost. In an effort to woo the woman he's mentored all her life at a late 1800's opera house, he killed and threatened, often without being seen. Here, all his villainous tricks are observed and demystified.

There's a hole at the center due to Gerard Butler's lack of star magnetism. The show revolves around the phantom's passions, but the 36-year-old pretty Scottish actor doesn't do epic passion. He's an amicable leading man (with only an adequate singing voice) who can't begin to suggest the emotional torment that makes his character cry out for the love of a beautiful woman. (The phantom isn't just cooing for a babe. He's lamenting all loss in having led a substandard life.)

The phantom's competition for the lady's affections--her childhood friend Raoul--is played by the equally pretty 31-year-old Patrick Wilson, who looks as if he and Butler came from the same jar of smoothing cream. The story is reduced to the simple tale of a woman choosing between two nearly equal young lovers (when a mask covers his scars, our "ghost" is as hot as Raoul, or any other teen magazine hunk). The males' characters and the central love story are so underwritten that it makes you wonder what all the self-torment and thrashing and traveling through underground waterways is really about.

But once you come to terms with the story's lack of core, you're free to enjoy the film's sideline niceties. Emmy Rossum, as the phantom's protege, is a wide-eyed delicate Christine; innocent, well-sopranoed, and possessing the charisma of a young Lesley Caron. Minnie Driver is a comically obnoxious diva (her singing voice is dubbed) who lights up the screen with the sort of voltage Butler should have provided. Anthony Pratt's sets, while often overscaled and bordering on self-parody, and John Mathieson's careful, smoky, Gothic-tinged cinematography, provide the sort of visual feast that brings to mind the better big-budget movie musicals of the 1960s.

Schumacher gives an almost Busby Berkeley feel to the choral songs, with the "Prima Donna" number--featuring a theater full of employees trying to entice their temperamental star to not quit--particularly rich in quick comic bits and musicalized attitude.

Webber's imitation-Puccini score (with unspectacular lyrics by Charles Black and Richard Stilgoe) seems overblown thanks, in part, to the screenplay's thinness and the composer's decision to retain many recitatives while adding spoken dialogue. But it has its flashes of regalness.

The craftsmanship in Phantom can't cover up an opera-scaled love story that's light on situation and characterization. There really isn't enough here to sing about. But when the film turns giddy or when the actors have something genuine to play (such as Butler's losing the girl in the end), the movie glides along pleasurably. It hints that there may be hope yet for the traditional film musical.


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