January is usually a time for me to catch up on movies I missed last year, though here are three best left missed. First, The Phantom of the Opera. Or, to set the mood, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Or, more terrifying yet, Joel Schumacher's Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. The Broadway tuner, scandalously popular with swooning patrons, gets the super-size treatment on the screen, everything just as bad as the original but longer, louder, and glitzier. Not that Schumacher has much to work with, anyway -- his soulless direction pulverized Larry Cohen's superb screenplay in Phone Booth, and here, working with far lesser material, he complements Webber's melodious banality with his own synthetic facility for visual flashiness. If Schumacher showed less taste and more abandon, the movie version might have achieved some of the overripe effects it strives for. As it is, he serves Webber's cheesorama opus all too well, which here means all too badly. In this reincarnation of the Gaston Leroux chestnut, even the rat-infested catacombs where the titular cape-twirler (Gerard Butler) takes his beloved soprano Christine (Emily Rossum) have impeccable set design, golden candle glow and dry-ice mist, while the Opera House's bal masqué becomes a Baz Luhrmann pastiche. (Any movie that makes me yearn for Luhrmann is evil.) Schumacher's doting over sets is just as well, since the main performers are bland to the point of invisibility. Rossum, who was impressive as Sean Penn's slaughtered daughter in Mystic River, has a glazed corruptibility that's pretty sweet, though Butler as the Phantom has zero danger, charisma, or singing ability -- might as well be Fabio behind the mask. (As for Patrick Wilson as Christine's suitor, I can't even remember what he looks like.) To make up for the vacuum in the center, Schumacher whips the rest of the cast (including Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow) into fortissimo mode, but there's little to be done with Webber's disco-kitsch muzak -- once it pierces through the skull, it's there till the day you die.
Even minus crashing candelabra, Beyond the Sea is a wackier venture. Also a musical, though I'll try to avoid comparisons between the Phantom's misshapen pucker and Kevin Spacey's bizarrely pulled-back visage. Realizing his decade-long dream of portraying late singer-songwriter Bobby Darin, the actor-director remains oblivious to the absurdity of a jowly 45-year-old star playing a well-known pop performer who died at the age of 37. When Spacey-as-Darin croons at an American Bandstand performance to a sea of screeching girls, or when he puts the moves on blondie star Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), and the other actors pretend not to notice that their "teen idol" is pushing 50, the movie inevitably becomes an even more avant-garde exercise than Star-Spangled to Death, far closer to That Obscure Object of Desire than to De-Lovely or Ray. As a sample of that malefic genre, the biopic, the film is mawkish, evasive, and reductive. As a personal document, however, it is fascinating -- that Spacey never disappears into his karaoke mimicry is indicative, despite its obsession with Darin, of the project's transparent emphasis on the impersonator rather than the impersonated. Spacey is all over the film, fully aware of the disaster potential and scrambling to cover it up with defensive self-reflexivity: various people in the clunky movie-within-movie structure keep saying that Darin (that is, Spacey) is too old for the part, only to be shouted down by the assurance that he was born to play that part. More Spacey -- stuff about toupees, Darin's relationship with his mother (played by Brenda Blethyn), a crack about Rock Hudson that shoots back to rumors about the actor's own sexual orientation. Creepily interesting, the wealth of egocentric subtext scarcely detracts from the movie's sheer awfulness, though. If "people hear what they see," then I hear "Splish Splat."
Finally, Spanglish. The writer-director, James L. Brooks, is an expert hand at mixing humor and heartache, or, to be more precise, at making audiences believe he's mixing humor and heartache while fashioning movies that play like four very special sitcom episodes stitched one after the other. The cozy, crowd-pleasing eccentricities of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets may signal comic humanism, but Brooks' mind, lubricated by decades of TV success from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Simpsons, among others, thinks solely in terms of calculated emotion and calculated shtick. In his new picture, Brooks the guilty liberal boils down a load of cultural tensions to safely, hands-across-the-racial-border feel-goodness, just as Terms of Endearment helped squash '70s advances while presenting the '80s Reagan morality with a new female role model in Debra Winger's docile spunk. If this is a less noxious achievement, it still maintains Brooks' bourgeois, TV-sized temperament. As befits the title's language miscegenation, the plot spins around seriocomically mingled cultures, with a struggling but model-gorgeous Mexican maid (Paz Vega) and her daughter (Shelbie Bruce) dropped smack in the middle of moneyed L.A. folks, emblemized by her employers, an easygoing chef (Adam Sandler) and his laboriously hateful bitch-on-wheels wife (Téa Leoni). There are plenty of supposedly hilarious crackups and supposedly heartwarming interludes from both sides of the social/racial border before this pernicious immigration fairy tale wraps with the only-in-Hollywood message that making it in a foreign nation and hanging on to your cultural heritage are a snap as long as you land in an American household designed by Brooks, complete with comically soused matriarch and problems that can be solved with plenty of time before the commercials. Sandler's offhand sweetness is a huge asset, proving his Punch-Drunk Love work was no fluke and deserving far better than this failed pilot for My Wacky White Bosses.
Reviewed January 18, 2005.