The Phantom Lover


THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Composer, producer, writer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Writer, director Joel Schumacher. Executive producer Austin Shaw, Paul Hitchcock. Cinematographer, John Mathieson. Production design, Anthony Pratt. Editor, Terry Rawlings. Alexandra Byrne. Visual effects supervisor, Nathan McGuinness. Choreographer, Peter Darling. Music co-producer, Nigel Wright. Music supervisor, Simon Lee. Starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson, with Miranda Richardson and Minnie Driver. Warner Bros., 2004. PG-13. 113 minutes.

Where is Baz Luhrmann when you need him?

If ever a movie needed the sure hand of the Australian master film stylist and self-described “mythomaniac,” it is this screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successful, long-running stage production of his hoary chestnut, The Phantom of the Opera. Lloyd Webber wrote the score in 1986, when the play debuted in London, where it is still running. Harold Prince brought it to Broadway in 1988, and now Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, 1995) brings it to the screen.

Unlike Luhrmann’s lush, pop-operatic Red Curtain trilogy, Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001), Schumacher’s vision is pure kitsch. Luhrmann astonished the audience as Romeo walked through the opulent, candle-light saturated tomb where Juliet lay. Unlike Luhrmann, Schumacher creates a smothering atmosphere, overusing candles as the Phantom (Gerard Butler) poles the gondola bearing his captive lover (Emmy Rossum) to his underground lair. One creates a Baroque, Catholic awe with the multitude of candles, while the other uses CGI to bring lighted candles up from the water!

Although I never saw the Lloyd Webber/Prince stage production, Jorge Morales, writing for the Village Voice, did. “Prince’s magic covered the show’s many flaws — thin plot, pedestrian lyrics, and schmaltzy derivative score — like so much mechanical fog. Schumacher enlarges them,” Morales wrote.

Aye, that’s the problem. Everything in the movie is overblown but underwhelming — the costumes, the singing, the dancing, the love songs. Lloyd Webber’s music for Phantom is often called earworms in reviews, and it is an apt description for the sensibility of much of the music, with inane, repetitive lyrics of longing, with no consumation in sight. In Moulin Rouge Luhrmann made a straightforward, brilliant decision. He took rock favorites and reimagined them as love songs. Powerful. Original.

Third point: The characters in Luhrmann’s work are full of life and love. Even the minor characters celebrate their passions — think of the show-stopper “Roseann,” danced as blood-lust tango by fully fleshed supporting characters, not the stars.

But little or no chemistry flares between the Schumacher’s major characters — Butler, Rossum and Patrick Wilson (as Raoul de Chagny), with the exception of the sword fight between the men, which stirs up something intense. But Rossum appears hypnotized when she’s in Butler’s presence, and he is a perfect ghostly lover, pale and cruel. Wilson comes across as a determined but not too romantic lover. The minor characters, while bizarre, at least kept me interested. Miranda Richardson is haunting as Madame Giry, while Carlotta, played over-the-top by Minnie Driver, is a sly buffoon.

Those who saw the play on stage and loved it, will probably like the screen version more than I did. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and was disappointed.

Now playing at Cinemark, the film is too schmaltzy to recommend.