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Heart of Gaucheness

'The Phantom of the Opera' is Pan-Atlantic kitsch at its most robust

By Richard von Busack

A WISE OLD MAN once said, "Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes down to the bone." The Phantom of the Opera proves it. Director Joel Schumacher, who didn't spare the sugar and the suet for this 21-ton Twinkie, doesn't go nuts with the editing, like his partner in ug, Baz Luhrmann. If you were deaf, you could settle in for a mild buzz from bad-movie narcosis, especially if your love of horror and weird old theaters overcame your dread of Baron Webber. But like King Baz of Vulgaria, Schumacher foists today's wretched taste upon our great-grandparents. They would have been horrified to see their era presented as a riot of clashing color, overloaded with elephantine bric-a-brac, with tortured titanic sculptures holding up everything but the ashtrays. (At last, you will know what a Goodwill store would look like if it were designed by Donald Trump.) And the audiences of the past would have had too much taste for the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtrack, best described as Gilbert & Sullivan meets Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

In sepia-toned bracketing sequences in 1917, we see the ruins of Paris's Opera Populaire being cleared by the auctioneers. Such residue as a shattered chandelier and a windup toy monkey is all that remains of a mystery. In 1870, a lurking phantom (the dull Gerard Butler) causes the demise of this palace. The shadowy figure is misperceived as the "Angel of Music" by a credulous songbird named Christine (Rossum). Though the Phantom sends off more advisory notes than David O. Selznick, the new management (led by Simon Callow) thwarts the disfigured stage-door Johnny and promotes a different diva.

As the evil diva Carlotta, Minnie Driver provides a little musical Tylenol for this headache. She is made up as Maria Callas, complete with the plucked-till-they-scream eyebrows—Callas as a Batman villain. Rossum bats her eyes prettily and somehow always manages to stay on the right side of the line between sweetness and insipidness. Christine certainly isn't the brightest heroine in the history of the musical theater. And in this film version, there isn't much chemical attraction between her and her dark angel, even if they weren't singing their terrible arias. The most snortworthy instant: the Phantom groaning at Christine to "turn your face away/ from the garish light of day"—garish indeed, coming from a man who sleeps in a raven-shaped bed with gore-colored sheets.

Schumacher has made some improvements of his own to this shlock-opera's inherent $50-a-ticket swankiness. Firstly, he has crafted modern-day sequences that only rob the film's immediacy. Secondly, he gives the Phantom a more sinned-against-than-sinning backstory marked "Property of the Elephant Man—Do Not Plagiarize." Was it Schumacher's innovation to let the villain go, right when he's wounded and held at sword point by the hero (Patrick Wilson, such as he is) for no better reason than so he can head back to the theater in time to drop the chandelier? Schumacher must sympathize—dropping chandeliers on an audience has been his way ever since Batman Forever.

The Phantom of the Opera (PG-13; 143 min.), directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber, photographed by John Mathieson and starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum plays valleywide.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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