In the mid-1800s, trouble is afoot at a popular Parisian opera house. With a change in ownership, the house diva (Minnie Driver, overacting as if Schumacher were holding her at gunpoint) raising hell, and audiences to please, the stage is set for underling Christine (Emmy Rossum, “The Day After Tomorrow”) to take the lead role and win over the crowds. She finds help in the house “ghost,” a masked Phantom (Gerard Butler, “Timeline”) who is in love with Christine from afar, and conspires through murder and extortion to get her on stage. Christine cannot resist the mysterious Phantom and his tutelage/obsession, but she soon falls in love with an old childhood friend, Raoul (Patrick Wilson, “The Alamo”), which sends the Phantom into a jealous rage.
The subject of countless film and television adaptations, “Phantom of the Opera” finally comes to the screen the way most audiences recognize it: the colorful musical created by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Who better to indulge Webber’s extravagance and ego than filmmaker Joel Schumacher, the man who put nipples on the bat suit. On paper, the teaming looks solid gold, yet the film is an experience that results in more yawns than goosebumps.
The long running musical, whose popularity is practically orbital by now, is a known commodity. For fans that live and breathe Webber’s movements, this “Phantom” should mildly pass with its luxurious and detailed sets, chest-heaving lead actors, and the familiar tunes that have lit up soccer mom SUVs for years now. Schumacher directs minimally, and doesn’t dare challenge the material in the least. His job is to make pretty pictures and cast pretty people; a job he’s done well for over 20 years. The production design and the cinematography team up for some spectacular sights, including the spooky, mist-laded catacomb lair of the Phantom, and the showstopping “Masquerade” number, which stands out as the highlight of the film in both sight and sound, and Schumacher won’t let a gold-flecked fan or towering wig out of his field of vision. Production wise, “Phantom” is a powerhouse motion picture, meticulously recreating Webber’s theatrical world while preserving Schumacher’s cinematic indulgences, flamboyance, and habits. However, the film can only go as far as its songs, and that’s where the merriment stops.
Not being a “Phantom” devotee, I had trouble with the consistency of Webber’s tunes. The film resembles a roller coaster of pace; the musical numbers ranging from hard-driving, chorus-rich, invigorating rock opera material to softly wandering, achingly dull exchanges between Christine and the Phantom that suffer from shapeless, random songwriting, often grinding the film to a complete halt. Matters aren’t helped by the music itself. One example would be a song during Christine’s initial seduction by the Phantom that sounds like a 1984 synth-driven Thompson Twins B-side, and nothing like the regal, lush orchestrations that back the rest of the material. Webber and Schumacher have cast well for the singing parts (Miranda Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, and Simon Callow also appear), though there is some irony that the only member of the cast to have her own CD (Minnie Driver) is the one performer completely dubbed. Emmy Rossum inhabits the role of Christine with bright-eyed wonder and a gorgeous voice to boot. She’s terrific, and the only real actor who could compete with Webber’s iconic original cast recording (Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman) for his musical.
As the Phantom, troublesome actor Gerard Butler is game to run around, foaming at the mouth, screaming Christine’s name to the heavens. He can’t be faulted for his passionate performance, but the man cannot sing the way the role requires. Butler is capable of belting out the big tunes of the piece, but his register isn’t as sophisticated as the role requires, and when he hits those high notes in “Music of the Night,” one cannot help but cringe. Butler is seriously miscast; a fact that becomes more and more frustrating as he’s given more songs to perform.
It seems the years that Webber has spent trying to mount this film have clouded his judgment, for this “Phantom” is far from the definitive version I’m sure many were hoping for.Rating: C