Liberace would have been so proud

Slam-glam `Phantom' frightens not at all


December 22, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A part from its ineptitude, the most terrifying thing about Joel Schumacher's big-screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera is its feckless junking of a classic nightmare figure.

Alone among the old horror standbys, the Phantom of the Opera is a man among monsters - a disfigured musical genius who wreaks havoc in that most stylish of cultural haunts, the Paris Opera House. The idea behind the figure of the Phantom is that art is dangerous - as dangerous as sex is in vampire movies, and sometimes as sexy, too.

In the marvelous 1925 silent production, Lon Chaney was a man so spectral that he was thoroughly believable as a perverted, desiccated muse - the spirit of romantic music gone rotten. Even when he was just a profile in the shadows, he carried himself like a spellbinding impresario. And despite his skeletal appearance, he moved on his victims with agility and dispatch.

In Schumacher's relentlessly arrhythmic and tone-deaf film, Gerard Butler plays the title role as if he were just plucked out of Monty Python's lumberjack chorus. What did he do to win this plum part? Obviously not sing or act. He's a pudding of a performer, devoid of either animal threat or animal magnetism. And given the way Webber has already watered down the horror (the Phantom's facial deformation is hardly as bad as some bungled plastic surgeries, and his mask is tres chic), Butler's ineffectuality is a disaster.

Maybe nothing could have salvaged the haywire rococo extravagance of Schumacher's rancid vision; the director has taken elegant elements from Jean Cocteau films - a mirror entrance to a secret world, self-moving candelabras complete with human arms - and realized them with the slam-glam touch of a Liberace. But without a strong Phantom there's nothing to fuel the material's seductive bad dream of High Art meeting High Society or the love triangle that ensnares the Phantom's musical prodigy Christine (Emmy Rossum) and her bold cavalier Raoul (Patrick Wilson). They spend so much time racing around corridors, rooftops and gravesites the only euphoria they're likely to generate is a runner's endorphin high. (Maybe they are high - that's the only reason to explain why in one not-so-thrilling climax they let the homicidal genius escape with his life.)

Even fans of Webber's repetitive score may groan at the flattening way the ensemble bats it out and at the glitzy way Schumacher tries to hype up the big numbers. His staging of "Masquerade" simply replays Madonna's "Vogue." Schumacher has been frank about his attempt to do a sort of power-pop opera; he says his goal was to put Webber's work "on steroids." I know musical directors aren't always sports fans, but hasn't he read the papers lately? Doesn't he know that's not a good thing?

The Phantom of the Opera

Starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

Time 143 minutes

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