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'Phantom': This Time, The Camera Is the Mask

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page C01

There wasn't a lot of actual music in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical "The Phantom of the Opera." A handful of maddeningly catchy tunes did triple and quadruple duty, suggesting often contradictory emotions: love and malevolence, resolution and anxiety. When words are set willy-nilly to repetitive music, you don't pay much attention to them -- this can be a blessing -- and if you're not paying attention to the words, then you can't scrutinize the plot. And the plot of this drastic adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel, about a soprano seduced by a murderous genius who lives beneath the Paris Opera, simply makes no sense. Certainly not on the philosophical level, where any attempt to reduce it to an intelligible conflict -- art vs. life? life vs. death? love vs. anger? -- leads almost instantly to a metaphysical logjam.

Fortunately, the movie version of Lloyd Webber's smash hit does to the music what the music did to the words and story: It distracts the mind and cajoles the eyes to the point that one doesn't really care that everything the ears are hearing is pure nonsense. It's gorgeous nonsense to look at, and in director Joel Schumacher's hands, "Phantom" emerges as one of those queer works of art that actually improve somehow as they get tackier and more removed from the original.

Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine in the attractive but equally nonsensical movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical. (Alex Bailey -- Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Perhaps it's because the camera is the ultimate apologist.

It apologizes, for instance, for Patrick Wilson and Emmy Rossum, who, as the dashing leads, can't or won't dance. In a dazzling ballroom scene that marks their betrothal, the camera swirls around them, supplying the moves that, in a real movie musical, would be danced by the cast. It apologizes for the fact that when Rossum's character, the ingenue soprano Christine, gets her first big break, she doesn't actually produce very good music. But there's the ever-loving camera, emphasizing not her singing but the response of others to the music, so we love her through them, and forgive a voice that would be laughed out of a real opera house. And when Lloyd Webber's score grows particularly repetitive, the camera steps discreetly into the void, supplying visual momentum when musical momentum falters.

So the whole thing feels breathless and exhilarating, even if, at the end, one can't be sure why any of these characters gathered in this place -- an opera house in Paris in the 1870s -- and persisted in the various amours and ambitions that bind them together. When psychological logic fails, there's always caricature, and when dramatic logic fails, there's always cliche. Nobody spins better desserts from caricature and cliche than Lloyd Webber.

Caricature, thy name is Minnie Driver, who acts (but doesn't sing) the role of Carlotta, the reigning diva of the Opera Populaire. Driver has made her character not just a shrew (that much is believable of a diva) but a shrew with no surface charisma. To other characters Schumacher has added his own touches, turning the nonentity Raoul, played by Wilson, into a swashbuckling hero on a white horse -- making it yet more inexplicable why Rossum's Christine would waver between a dashing young man of fortune and the eponymous Phantom, a subterranean homicidal maniac with only half a face.

For cliche, there's a parade in borrowed rags of material cadged from other dramas and sources. Lloyd Webber adds to the novel the Shakespearean mousetrap device, a fateful play within a play, à la "Hamlet"; and in his hands, the Phantom morphs from evil genius to suffering artist, and becomes a weirdly sympathetic character, like the Elephant Man. Operatic references abound in the original score, and in the movie Schumacher adds emphasis to the simple family dramas, wrenched straight out of "Freud for Dummies."

In the original musical, all of Lloyd Webber's borrowing felt ungenerous. He wasn't playing with and honoring his artistic forebears -- he was stealing, with the craven hope that no one would notice. He was making a stew, not weaving a fabric, and to really enjoy his work you had to put the past out of mind. If you could forget the entire tradition of romantic and Gothic literature, then the plot didn't hurt so bad; and if you could pretend that Puccini never existed, Lloyd Webber's music sounded pretty darn good.

If you can forget the venerable tradition of movie musicals, Schumacher's latest goes down easy as well. It's an action flick with singing, and a three-ring circus of dead plot devices reanimated by movie magic.

There are a few admirable performances, especially from Simon Callow, one of the theater managers, who gives sparkle to the musical's best moments of comic-opera pastiche. Wilson and Rossum are at least pretty to look at, especially in Alexandra Byrne's sumptuous costumes. Production designer Anthony Pratt has created a stage set -- an actual 886-seat theater inspired by the look of the great Paris opera house, the Opera Garnier -- which becomes a world within a world, and there's new emphasis on gritty backstage life. Special effects are well used, especially in the opening, in which the world of Paris transforms from black-and-white storybook illustration to full-color splendor.

And if nothing else from the original novel survives into this third generation of reconfiguration, the sly sense that the whole thing is a joke on us, the gullible audience, remains. Leroux dares you to throw the book across the room with a harrumph at his silliness and gall. Lloyd Webber's musical was, quite possibly, the composer's inside joke on opera, robbing it blind and insulting it at the same time. In Schumacher's movie, there's a scene in a graveyard, with a swordfight and an open tomb beckoning to the heroine, that is so over-the-top with cliches it invites cynics to consider this: The director is daring you to notice the artifice, the theft, the threadbareness of it all, by showing you the graveyard as a symbol of popular entertainment that refuses to die. A bad novel that became a bad musical lives on as a gleefully bad movie.

The Phantom of the Opera (143 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief violent images.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company