It's Paris, 1919, and the city has seen better days. You can tell from the grainy black-and-white footage, the smoke wisping around the Opera Populaire (which looks suspiciously like the Paris Opera House) and the scraps of paper fluttering in the wind -- all sure signs of desolation and imminent flashback. Soon it will be 1870 and we'll get the whole story. But first, inside the shabby auditorium, a pair of melancholy old-timers must exchange meaningful glances as an auctioneer liquidates what's left of the opera's grand past. The gentleman, whom we later learn to be the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) buys a wind-up cymbal-monkey as the lady, Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) casts knowing looks in his direction. Pigeons flap through the cavernous interior, mostly shot from oblique angles, and for a moment, the film has the carnivalesque feel of a Nine Inch Nails video directed by David Lynch.
All of which changes the instant an enormous chandelier reaches the auctioneer's block. A phantom, you say? Tragique accident? Just like that, the screen becomes engorged with color, piles of dust as thick as frosting waft off the seats and chandelier bulbs alight as the familiar remedial melodies that all but soured our coming of age (OK, mine) unleash a bombastic assault on the ear. That's when it becomes unavoidably clear that we're not in Paris, France, at all. We're in Paris, Las Vegas.
Not really. But close. Joel Schumacher's version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" is an $80-million filmed reprise of the '80s Broadway megamusical, a phenomenon that has, alas, not yet spied the end of the road. According to the movie's press release, "a testament to 'Phantom's' enduring popularity is a plan, currently in the works, for a permanent theatrical installation of the musical to be housed at the Venetian hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Nevada." Among other things, you might be interested to know, the installation would include "an exploding replica of the Paris Opera House chandelier." The Schumacher extravaganza doesn't have any exploding parts that I recall, but apart from that, the future Vegas spectacle has nothing on the movie.
And what a movie it is. Or is it really a movie? Insofar as it is filmed, cast and art-directed to the point of near collapse, I suppose it is. But "Phantom," which relies largely on Lloyd Webber's singsong lyrics to guide us through the action, tends to drift in a semiconscious fog (mostly from all the stage mist) as though purposefully trying to lose us in all the murkiness and Rococo design.
The story, in a nutshell, is a love triangle of the old "You must pay the rent"; "I can't pay the rent"; "I'll pay the rent" variety between the dashing Raoul (Wilson), Christine (Emmy Rossum), the orphaned chorus girl who's been living in the ballet dormitory since she was a child, and the title phantom (Gerard Butler) -- a disfigured musical genius who dwells in the basement of the opera.
In the flashback that makes up the bulk of the story, Christine is all grown up and limber, and the theater's new owners (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) saunter in along with their patron, the vicompte, to tour the bohemian bowels of the place, ogle the dancing girls and say hello to the company diva, Carlotta (Minnie Driver), a tempestuous Italian soprano with an inexplicable accent. Driver throws herself into the part with gusto, and it's good -- if surprising -- to see her there among the knickknacks. The part of Carlotta is as grating as it is funny, but at least Driver shows signs of life. Soon enough, however, the new managers offend the diva and she stalks off, giving Christine, whom the Phantom has been secretly voice-coaching through some kind of metaphysical intercom system, gets the big break she's been preparing for her whole life.
This is all well and good. Only the Phantom has been haunting the opera and commanding a hefty salary for doing so for as long as anyone can remember. The new managers don't plan to honor the deal, however. And to make matters worse, Raoul and Christine have a past. (Or, as she puts it, "Before my father died, at the house by the sea, I guess we were what you would call childhood sweethearts.") Now, the tortured Phantom, who is not only disfigured but in love with Christine (plus his voice box appears to be permanently grafted to a reverb machine), is just one repeated chorus away from a total meltdown. Not that this particular Phantom seems to have it so bad. He lives in a candlelit subterranean grotto, accessible only by gondola and Venetian-style canal, that Siegfried and Roy would kill for. And he's uncommonly attractive for a horribly disfigured man. In fact, as horribly disfigured men go, he's a total babe. (The horrible disfigurement is confined to part of the face, which he somewhat rakishly conceals with a modish, self-adhesive white mask.)
Rossum is lovely, despite the late-'80s get-up and hairstyle that have been inflicted on her here. And she has a pretty voice, but it's hard to overcome the sight of her dressed up in a Cinderella costume with a slit up to her thigh, gliding around the movie in an open-lipped haze. To watch Christine as she makes her way to her father's grave ("To my father's grave!" she commands the cabby) is to become convinced that "Phantom" is kind of hoping our minds will wander or become distracted by things like the grotesque carving of an agonized Jesus in a corner of the cemetery, or the Phantom's Vegas-tacular swan-shaped bed. But no sooner are we lulled into a stupor by the singsong and the mist than Wilson comes charging bareback through the fog and snow on a white steed, clad in nothing but a Seinfeldian puffy shirt and a drawn sword. (So much for Paris, 1870. It's like "The Mists of Avalon" in the graveyard.)
For their sheer strangeness, scenes like these are not unpleasant. But the real problem with "Phantom" is the problem with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in general. It's a slow-moving orgy of lowbrow grandiosity that's as tedious as it is overblown and pretentious. Songs, scenes, dance numbers, lyrics and set pieces all blend together into an indistinct, ludicrously self-serious mush, while repetitive melodies get spread across entire sequences like cheap carpet. It's as if "Showgirls" had been production designed by Toulouse-Lautrec and Victoria's Secret and convinced itself that it had class. If you're going to be in Vegas in the spring of 2006 anyway, I'd skip the movie and wait for the extravaganza.
'The Phantom of the Opera'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief violent images
Times guidelines: Operatic violence, visible garters, not suitable for children who bore easily
Gerard Butler...The Phantom
Minnie Driver...La Carlotta
Miranda Richardson...Madame Giry
Warner Bros. Pictures presents In association with Odyssey Entertainment. A Really Useful Films/Scion Films production. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher. Based on the novel "Le Fantome de l'Opera by Gaston Leroux. Cinematographer John Mathieson. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart. Additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. Originally produced for the stage by Cameron Mackintosh & The Really Useful Group. Music co-producer Nigel Wright. Music supervisor and conductor Simon Lee. Choreographer Peter Darling. Visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne. Edited by Terry Rawlings. Production designer Anthony Pratt. Co-producer Eli Richbourg. Executive producers Austin Shaw, Paul Hitchcock, Louise Goodsill, Ralph Kamp, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman, Keith Cousins. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.
In general release.