The Phantom of the Opera

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
143 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Joel Schumacher. Cast: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow.

"Drink it in, drink it up,/till you've drowned/in the light.../in the sound.../Masquerade!/Take your fill—/let the spectacle/astound you!" —"Masquerade," Phantom of the Opera

Joel Schumacher proves himself to be the perfect director for the job of translating Andrew Lloyd Webber's bombast into splashy cinematic terms; his noisy spectacle here qualifies as restraint compared to his treatment of Batman and Robin. Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'opéra spawned numerous films before Webber's 1987 light-opera version of Phantom of the Opera took Broadway by storm. Despite its sumptuous, colorful production design and seal of Webber approval, the film will doubtless disappoint the musical's fanatical audience.

Faithfulness is not the issue, under producer and co-screenwriter Webber's watchful eye. The campy ramp-up, set in 1919 Paris, depicts an auction of pieces from the now musty Opera Populaire (including Lot 666, a chandelier in pieces). In good time, the music positively thunders as the herky-jerky black-and-white 1919 roars into its colorful prime of 1870. There, the opera's shallow new managers (Simon Callow and Ciarán Hinds) troubleshoot their prima donna diva (Minnie Driver) and consider the prospects of lovely chorus singer Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum). Ominous talk of the Opera's resident phantom unnerve the managers, but the show must go on.

Schumacher—who shares Webber's screenwriter credit—assuredly capitalizes on his cinematic tools to replace theatrical effects. During Christine's understudy audition, the camera swings behind her and the empty opera dissolves into a full house with Christine and company in full costume; then, the camera travels down to the Phantom's subbasement lair. Schumacher favors dutch-angled crane pans to achieve a woozy, ethereal effect. The Phantom's psychadelic first appearance, "inside" Christine's mind achieves dreaminess but obscures the plot transition of Christine's meeting with the Phantom, who Schumacher depicts as a Charon-esque boatman guiding Christine into a Hades that suggests a set-decoration showroom. Indeed, detailed production design crams into each of the film's many frames. Aside from a clumsy, tightly framed sword duel, Schumacher's visual compositions are, at least, effective.

Casting is the sticking point, with Gerard Butler (Timeline) as a self-consciously intense Phantom lacking in devilish charm. In her movie-star lighting, Rossum fares better as Christine, but even she reads blankly in her dramatic "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" number; perhaps in desperation, Schumacher shoots most of the song in long shot, which bonds us more to the elaborate, snowy graveyard set than the character walking through it. Miranda Richardson bugs out her eyes meaningfully as ballet mistress and woman-who-knows-too-much Madame Giry; Patrick Wilson is, perhaps blandly ideal as Raoul, the ingenue alternative to the rakish Phantom.

Christine's love for Raoul seems shallow, one of the play's inherent limitations, like the tricky sell of pitiful, loving audience identification with a demented murderer (again, Butler is little help, though his final torments begin to connect). As for Webber's music (lyrics by Charles Hart), it sometimes soars, but more often pounds the viewer into submission on cue, often spilling over into silliness like the rock beat he momentarily weds to the classical element. For Oscar consideration, the credits include new song "Learn to Be Lonely," sung by Minnie Driver (whose singing voice in the film proper is dubbed by Margaret Preece).

Schumacher's rococo Phantom roars to life in its least intimate passages: the dazzling production number "Masquerade" and the amusing comic showboating of Callow, Hinds, and Driver (who admirably goes for broke by doing an Italian Rosie Perez). But if Schumacher never quite plunges over the edge of bad taste here, he never quite tells a convincing story, either. With a blind spot for his "angel in hell" Phantom, Schumacher just fails to do Webber's popular entertainment justice.

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