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LES MISERABLES

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D+

Like Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which arrived DOA in theatres during the 2004 holiday season, Tom Hooper’s opulent but bloated version of another insipid pop opera proves a lump of coal in moviegoers’ Christmas stockings.

Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is, of course, a classic, and given its emotional power it’s understandable that it’s been filmed so often (nearly twenty times), most memorably in 1935 with Fredric March and the incomparable Charles Laughton—a bit creaky by modern standards (the heavenly choir in some of the music cuts is surely embarrassing) but still moving. But why this musicalization of it has become such an international phenomenon is puzzling. The French libretto by Alain Boubil reduces the tale to its most rudimentary points (the emphasis given to street urchin Gavroche, played here by irritating little Daniel Huddlestone, is perhaps the worst example), the score by Claude-Michel Schoenberg is a numbingly unvaried succession of dirgelike recitative-arias punctuated with spuriously uplifting choral outbursts, and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics are unremittingly obvious and banal. But in an era when spectacle trumps content, the extravaganza that Cameron Mackintosh and his technical wizards fashioned on stage apparently convinced audiences that they were watching something special.

Director Tom Hooper, who had unexpected success with “The King’s Speech,” tries the same recipe in this screen adaptation of the show. This “Miserables” is big, with huge sets, florid costumes, cinematography by Danny Cohen that mixes large crowd scenes with overbearing close-ups and editing (by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens) that fluctuates between long takes and rapid-fire, jumbled cutting that often gets too busy for the material’s good. Hooper has also employed one technical innovation that proves to have both strengths and weaknesses. Rather than having the cast lip-synch to prerecorded tapes or dubbing the songs in post-production, he outfitted the performers with microphones as they sang. On the positive side, this adds emotional heft to their renditions, making use of their acting chops as well as their vocal chords. On the other, it reveals every vocal imperfection.

And unfortunately there are plenty of them. Anne Hathaway gets by well enough in her small role as Fantine, the doomed woman forced into prostitution after she loses her factory position; and Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly effective as older Cosette, whom the convict Valjean, living under a false name to elude capture by the obsessive Inspector Javert, rescues and brings up as her daughter. Eddie Redmayne is also fine as Marius, the young revolutionary who becomes Cosette’s romantic interest despite the love of Eponine (Samantha Barks, also okay) to keep them apart.

But in the pivotal roles of Valjean and Javert the production stumbles badly. Jackman emotes frantically, but to be honest, Hooper miscalculates by focusing on him in close-up too often, making you all too aware of all the effort he’s putting into his performance. And though his voice barely gets by on stage, here it’s unsatisfactory—thin, wobbly and unfocused. By contrast Russell Crowe as Javert barely emotes at all—he just walks through the picture looking as though he’s suffering from perpetual stomach upset, and though his vocalism might be perfectly adequate for a garage band, its range is hopelessly inadequate for this ersatz operatic writing. When he—and Jackman as well—attempt to take their voices into the upper register, they emit a strangulated sound that’s positively painful to hear.

The singing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the nasty couple from whom Javert takes Cosette, isn’t really much better, and their acting is really nothing more than mugging. Still one welcomes their big duet, “Master of the House,” simply because in the dreary sameness that marks most of Schoenberg’s score it comes across like like a real Broadway number—not a good one, necessarily (if fact, it sounds like something Lionel Bart would have rejected for “Oliver!”), but at least different from what surrounds it.

Maybe nothing will stop the legions of fans who have kept “Les Miserables” running on Broadway for years and touring endlessly from going to this film of it—though a similar history of success certainly didn’t help Schumacher’s “Phantom.” But unless you think that Schoenberg’s mediocre score is the height of musical profundity, you’d be well advised to stick with the March-Laughton version, where the leads deliver their lines in a truly musical way without singing. Or better yet, read the book.

ACCEPTED

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D+

Justin Long is an amiable young actor–he was the doomed brother in “Jeepers Creepers” and the geeky guy in “Dodgeball,” and co-stars in the latest run of Apple commercials–but he couldn’t salvage the wretched “Waiting,” and he can’t make this ersatz campus comedy, sleepily directed by ex-actor Steve Pink, tolerable. “Accepted” wants to be a new “Animal House,” but it’s more like a rerun of “PCU.”

The idea behind the picture is that Bartleby Gaines (Long) has failed to be get into college, deeply disappointing his parents. (Of course, they must have disappointed him by naming him Bartleby in the first place.) So with the help of his chubby computer-savvy buddy Sherman (Jonah Hill), he invents a fictitious institution, website and all, which he pretends has admitted him. Of course, to pull the con off, he has to create a campus his family can actually visit–so he and his buddies renovate a deserted psychiatric hospital to make it look like a school and hire a derelict, sharp-tongued ex-academic (“Daily Show” comic Lewis Black) to play its dean. Things get complicated when hundreds of kids show up for classes, having enrolled via that website and waving ten-thouand dollar tuition checks. And Bartleby, unable to reject kids who have been turned down too often (as well as their money, one supposes), decides to keep the place open and actually run it as a college where the students “teach” each other in self-constructed “courses” of distinctly unorthodox cast.

That radical, undisciplined approach can’t go unchallenged, of course. Arrogant Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) of the prestigious Harmon University that just happens to be adjacent to the new school, learns of Bartleby’s establishment when he sends his most helpful student, the obnoxious Dwayne (Kellan Lutz), to buy up the land it sits on for an imposing new entrance for his August institution. And he tries to shut the place down by dragging Bartleby before Ohio’s accrediting board. This leads to a big, uplifting, and supremely unlikely finale when Gaines and his supportive students appear before the educators to argue their case. The institutional struggle is tied up in a personal one, since Dwayne is also the fraternity president tormenting Sherman, as well as the philandering boyfriend of Monica (Blake Lively), the neighbor Bartleby’s always loved from afar. And there’s a small army of supposedly colorful students to act wild and weird in the intervals between the bursts of plot, among whom Adam Herschman, as a would-be master chef, stands out like a sore thumb even in so large a group of take-no-prisoner actors trying desperately to make themselves noticed. Still, he seems positively restrained beside Heald (the doomed psychiatrist in “The Silence of the Lambs”), whose sneering is tiresome on its first appearance, and Black, whose rants aren’t nearly as funny as the ones he does for Jon Stewart.

“Accepted” was written by a trio of sterling scribes who among them previously gave us “New York Minute” and “The Country Bears.” That should give you some idea of the quality of their script, which could have yielded a sharp academic satire had its central premise been treated with some intelligence. But instead the picture opts for the most obvious sort of goofball farce, leavened with cheap sentiment, David-vs.-Goliath triumphalism, and a pronounced string of scatological gags (Bartleby’s school is called the South Harmon Institute of Technology; just think of the acronym that name naturally leads to, and then imagine the result when its students gleefully refer to themselves similarly to the way in which Packer fans are called Cheeseheads; there’s a lot of, shall we say, verbally excremental humor). It’s an uneasy mixture, mirrored in the character of Bartleby, initially a clumsy non-achiever who’s abruptly transformed into a master entrepreneur and sizzling speaker. Even Long, deft as he is, can’t manage such massive contradictions, and none of his supporting players do much more than coast their way through a variety of indignities, with the unfortunate, though game, Hill forced to endure the most pronounced and numerous humiliations. Visually the picture looks pretty grubby, though it’s difficult to tell whether the blame rests more with DP Matthew Leonetti or production designer Rusty Smith.

One might be tempted to believe that Universal is releasing “Accepted” in August in anticipation of the imminent beginning of the new school year. But the choice was probably dictated less by an academic calendar than by the fact that the month is the traditional dumping-ground for movies studios realize are dogs. Woof.