Comfortable and Furious

Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Watching Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera is like attending a royal wedding — everything is in its place, the surroundings are lush and inviting, and every corner is teeming with brilliantly crafted, lovingly staged trinkets and goodies, but to what end? As the wedding accomplishes little more than the coupling of two overly pampered members of the idle rich, the movie brings us nothing but empty spectacle; eye-candy without a shred of consequence.

And as I filed in to take my place among the openly gay men, closeted gay men, and heterosexual men forced to attend by their wives (ahem), I expected no less, for I am rarely on speaking terms with the musical, unless of course Bob Fosse is in some way connected. Because the only movie musicals I have ever enjoyed are of that variety — Cabaret, All That Jazz, and Chicago — it stands to reason that unless I am treated to cynicism, bite, and darker shades amidst the bellowing from balconies and frenzied gams, I will assume I am being insulted and asked to play along with the shameless un-reality of it all. Of course, musicals are not obligated to exist on any plane other than the fantastical, but there should be an effort — through song — to speak to deeper impulses than melodramatic longings.

As such, The Phantom of the Opera — arguably the world’s most popular theatrical undertaking (outside of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other deeply offensive and unwatchable effort, Cats) — is nothing more than the triumph of the lowbrow; an appeal to the heart that will disappear into the mist the instant it is intellectualized.

For my money, and I haven’t sucked enough cocks to be an expert in musical theater, but there isn’t a memorable number to be found; at least if the standard is that you will be humming it in the car after the show. I didn’t know what in the hell they were singing about half the time, but that could be due in part to the sheer explosion of color the film uses to distract us from the shop-worn plot. For example, there is a scene in a graveyard that is a triumph of production design (snow, mist, and haunting headstones complete the image), but for the life of me I don’t know why this chick was screeching. I think it was an ode to her dead father, but does it really matter? When the visuals win out over everything else, you know it’s a matter of the words only existing in service of the set pieces. And who are these people, anyway?

There’s the Phantom (Gerard Butler), Christine (Emmy Rossum), Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), and Carlotta (Minnie Driver, a shameless showboat here), but are they anything more than their costumes and make-up? Again, Oscars all around to the production team (hell, the flower budget alone might exceed the GDP of most countries), but these people have nothing underneath their robes. And if we are to care, or cry, or cheer, we must know them beyond surface. As the Phantom and Raoul engage in a badly choreographed sword fight in the cemetery, they might as well be fighting over a ham sandwich for all the back-story we’re given. Christine is lovely to be sure, but she has all the charm and substance of one of the statues that fills the opera house. All this over a set of tits? Maybe, but then shouldn’t they be dueling over Meg, easily the hottest thing in all of Paris? Her rack practically spills out onto the floor.

I know it’s supposed to be so very dramatic that this Phantom fella has lived beneath the opera house for many years because he was once an exploited child due to his deformity (little more than a port wine stain, by what I saw), but we always know where this is going. He’s in love with Christine because he’s horny as hell, and the same could be said of Raoul’s longing (although he knew Christine as a youth), and each wants to impose his will on this tightly controlled world.

The Phantom, actually, is pretty much a complete asshole, as he whines and huffs about because he can’t sleep with any young lass that passes through his lair. He puts the lives of others in danger, kills a few poor saps who work at the theater, and manages to burn down a rather impressive looking structure. A 143-minute musical about a spoiled child who usually enters the room like Bela Lugosi’s “double” in Plane 9 from Outer Space? Indeed, in yet another attempt to substitute length for grandeur (Hollywood — and audiences — always fall for that one this time of year). In the end, the Phantom gives Christine a choice, she kisses the poor sap yet leaves with Raoul, and he breaks all of his mirrors as a sign that he will move on in life, presumably to haunt another opera house, as he’s all but unemployable as a murderer or an arsonist.

One last thing about that Phantom. He’s supposed to be the picture of grotesque ugliness, so why did my wife practically leap out of her seat with lust whenever he appeared [Ed Note: What do you think it says, Matt]? This story really only makes sense (go with me on this one, for it doesn’t really make any sense at all) if the contrast between the Phantom and Raoul is stark and obvious. As played by Mr. Butler, the Phantom is a strapping hunk, and it could be argued that Christine is responding to his physical attractiveness rather than his romanticism, which I think is supposed to be the exact opposite. Who knows? Still, it’s fitting that I ended this review with a discussion of the Phantom’s sex appeal, as I’ve never been closer to converting after an evening with this ridiculous pomp.