Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 3, 2005)
19 years after its debut, The Phantom of the Opera remains one of the world’s most popular stage productions. The musical continues to sell tickets without much difficulty and earn the adoration of the masses. Theoretically, this meant that the 2004 screen adaptation of Phantom would prove to be a smash, right?
Wrong. Despite a fair amount of hype, Joel Schumacher’s take on the musical failed to find much of an audience on the big screen. The $60 million production grossed an awfully mediocre $50 million. 2002’s Chicago showed that audiences are willing to go to movie musicals, but Phantom did nothing to continue the genre’s return to prominence.
The film opens in Paris circa 1919, where we see an auction of relics from a decrepit opera house. We hear some allusions to a ghost who haunted the joint and caused some problems, all of which culminated in the destruction of a grand chandelier. When we see the hoisting of a restored chandelier, its illumination strips away the years and we go back to the same site in 1870.
At that time the building housed the Opera Populaire, and we meet many folks associated with it. We encounter new owners Richard Firmin (Ciaran Hinds) and Gilles Andre (Simon Callow) along with the opera’s new patron: Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson). Chorus girl Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) used to know him and they were childhood sweethearts, though he no longer appears to recognize her.
The Opera Populaire employs temperamental diva Carlotta Giudicelli (Minnie Driver) as its lead soprano, but she almost gets injured when a mysterious figure drops a scaffold on her. As related to the new owners by show mistress Mme. Giry (Miranda Richardson) - the mother to chorus girl Meg (Jennifer Ellison) and also surrogate parent to the orphaned Christine - they’ll need to placate the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler), the dude behind the “accident”.
That doesn’t matter to Carlotta. She storms off and leaves the show without a lead for the evening. Mme. Giry convinces them to give Christine a shot, and she earns the role. She proceeds to dazzle all involved with her performance and also attracts the attention of Raoul, as he now recognizes her.
We learn that Christine received her vocal education from an “angel of music” - that’d be the Phantom. The rest of the movie follows their relationship. The Phantom clearly pines for Christine, and that creates a love triangle that includes Raoul. We also see Christine’s career path and the Phantom’s involvement with it.
Boy, all of that almost makes it sound like Phantom presents a coherent plot, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth. Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals have always been spectacles of theatrics and pageantry more than well-scripted tales with rich characters, and that holds true for Phantom.
Honestly, does this thing even have a plot? I don’t think so - it’s just loosely connected musical numbers without a clear and involving story to interest us. Most of the time it makes little sense, as the jerky narrative jumps from one point to another with little connection or logic. It feels like short vignettes cobbled together into an attempt at a full narrative. It’s a facsimile of a story but not anything concrete.
Similar thoughts greet the characters. I’d like to call them one-dimensional, but that might make them sound better-developed than they are. These folks are half-dimensional at best. From the nutty Phantom to the innocent Christine to vaguely heroic Raoul, there’s no personality to be found in any of them. We’ve seen enough similar characters to understand what we’re supposed to expect from them, but we get little definition to broaden them.
Don’t anticipate any help from the actors. Rossum and Wilson certainly look good in their parts, though I think Wilson might offer the definition of “blandly handsome”; without question, he’s a good-looking dude, but he displays no spark. Neither he nor Rossum can do much more than summon one personality trait. Christine is naïve and innocent, while Raoul is semi-heroic. They become a couple because the script says so; there’s no other connection between them or any charisma on display.
Butler fares slightly better as the Phantom, but only to a minor degree. Unlike the others, he gets two emotions: angry and melancholy. Butler plays both to the hilt, as Phantom isn’t a film concerned with subtlety, but he doesn’t create a personality with any memorable qualities.
And then there’s the music. I suppose Webber is beyond criticism at this point, for his gooey, lowest-common-denominator confections have proved so popular over the years. Nonetheless, criticize him I will, for the music of Phantom ranges from banal to atrocious.
Take the title tune - please. With its silly synths and overwrought tone, it sounded dated in 1986, and it certainly hasn’t aged well. At least that song sticks in one’s head. The rest of the movie comes packed with one saccharine, forgettable ballad after another, none of which manages to stand out next to the others. There’s not a decent tune in the bunch.
If Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t really exist, someone would invent him as a character in a parody. How this man’s achieved his level of success remains an absolute mystery to me. Can 50,000,000 Phantom fans be wrong? Sure they can, and the popularity of this inane drivel proves that.