Go for baroque
Webber and Schumacher put Phantom over the top
The team of musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and filmmaker Joel Schumacher sounds like a match made in hell. Hooking the creator of Cats to the director of Batman & Robin sounds about as desirable as reuniting Leopold and Loeb, Bonnie and Clyde or Hall and Oates.
But for the big-screen adaptation of Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, Schumacher puts his superficial visual style to the service of the blaring Broadway show for a sleek, lush film that's occasionally almost good. If you liked the mega-hit musical, you should like the florid film version, and if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, those are the only ones this Phantom earns.
Phantom unveils its luxuriant approach in a black-and-white, turn-of-the-20th-century prologue at a decrepit opera house. The Dickensian auctioneers unveil a chandelier, the central prop of the stage play, and its sudden illumination covers the film in vivid color and hurls us back to the theater's heyday in 1870.
The theater's new owners (wittily played by Simon Callow and Ciarán Hinds) scoff at rumors of an "opera house ghost" that demands appeasement, and instead curry favor with their resident diva (an overheated Minnie Driver). When the prima donna quits rehearsal, the producers cast orphaned ingenue Christine (Emmy Rossum) as the leading lady. Rossum proves Phantom's most likable presence, sweetly phrasing songs like "Angel of Music" while displaying a charming lack of actorly artifice.
Christine gets secret music lessons from a mysterious voice, who reveals himself after her grand debut. The masked Phantom (Gerard Butler), a demented genius raised in the catacombs under the theater, treats Christine as student, muse and potential lover. But when Christine falls for the dashing Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the Phantom resolves to bring down the house in more ways than one.
Webber clearly identifies with the Phantom, who plays Beast to Christine's Beauty and torments anyone who interferes with his artistic vision. But it's hard to get a fix on the character. Rejected by society for a relatively minor disfigurement, he's too deranged and stalkerish to be a sympathetic character. In "Music of the Night" and "Point of No Return," he seduces Christine to get in touch with her sexuality (or maybe some less specific psychological "dark side"). But Rossum never plays Christine as a blushing virgin, nor does Wilson make Raoul an aristocratic prig, so the romantic triangle never makes dramatic sense. Perhaps Butler's performance diminishes the role — his hoarse singing voice and pouty expressions seldom convey a noble soul.
The entire cast struggles to keep from being overwhelmed by the film's sheer quantity of stuff, with vivid roses, flickering candles and semi-nude statuary crowding nearly every shot. Schumacher creates an experience comparable to a 360-degree immersion in a massive, overproduced stage musical, which suits Webber's creative excesses. In Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann took a similar setting and pummeled the musical numbers into submission with hyperactive editing and camerawork. Schumacher prefers to slowly savor Phantom's sights and sounds.
If only Phantom offered more to relish. The lyrics embrace the sentimentality of Hallmark greeting cards, and even the catchy melodies grow overbearing. In Webber compositions, the crescendos kick in with virtually the first verse. The song "Phantom of the Opera" so ineptly mixes a rock drum machine with a pastiche of Bach that the rest of the score sounds restrained by comparison. And the film flubs its dance numbers. "Masquerade" costumes the ensemble in eye-catching shades of black, white and gold, but the choreography derives almost comically from voguing, the Robot and semaphore flags.
Sitting through nearly two hours and 20 minutes of The Phantom of the Opera eventually feels like being yelled at. But small doses go down easily, especially when Butler and Driver are offscreen. Had the director applied his compulsively baroque style to a better musical, like Sondheim's even darker Sweeney Todd, Schumacher could have contributed to the musical genre's big-screen comeback. But this Phantom never convinces us to surrender to the music of the night.