Quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera represents everything that’s wrong with much of today’s musical theater. Like overpriced costume jewelry, this tacky Broadway version of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel—with its soulless histrionics set to music and pedestrian lyrics Hilary Duff could have written during a bad break-up (sample contrivance: “We never said our love was evergreen”)—seems to appeal to the same people who like Celine Dion and Meatloaf albums. Fans of Webber’s musical can rejoice, then, because it’s a testament to the faithfulness of Joel Schumacher’s film version of Phantom that it stands toe-to-toe with the original stage version in sheer awfulness.
The story should be familiar to anyone who’s come to New York since 1988: When Christine (Emmy Rossum) upstages the diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver), thanks to the help of the mysterious Phantom (Gerard Butler) who haunts the Opera Populaire, her childhood sweetheart, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), woos the girl and, in turn, incurs the wrath of the Phantom. In the film, Carlotta is inexplicably allowed to perform despite the fact that the 19th-century Parisian bourgeois that goes to the opera hates her singing. Bless her little heart, Driver tries to make sense out of a character that doesn’t—truly, it’s strange that the character even exists, because Carlotta is really no different from Phantom itself: soulless, ostentatious, and irritating. Is this Schumacher’s idea of self-parody? Hardly.
Phantom isn’t fun—hell, it isn’t even campy. It asks us to believe that the owners of the Opera Populaire would pay a crazed madman to live inside the bowels of their opera house, ostensibly because he’ll stay out of their hair (and produce musical or two, if they’re lucky). A slave all his life to different kinds of freak shows, the Phantom seems to attract an audience, but the man’s mystique and populist appeal is scarcely on Schumacher’s mind. Unlike Opera, Dario Argento’s very unofficial interpretation of Leroux’s Phantom, it’s amazing how little Schumacher grapples with notions of commerce throughout the film, which is surprising considering how obsessively Colin Farrell’s character is forced to deal with the semiotics of the world around him in Schumacher’s best film to date, Phone Booth.
Save for a ridiculous flashback that explains how Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) saved the Phantom from a traveling freak show, Schumacher’s Phantom is déjà vu of the Broadway version. That’s not to say the film isn’t cinematic: It is, but expect for a bizarro “Don Juan” sequence that teeters with all sorts of mixed emotional messages, every frame in the film looks as if it were designed to evoke the cover of one those bad harlequin romances where Fabio is wrapping his sweaty he-man arms around some little tart who probably took a wrong turn outside a barn after milking her lascivious father’s prized heifer. Good news, I suppose, for any Danielle Steele fan who gets a kick out big dumb animals spitting out shallow come-ons, because that’s what Phantom is: A jukebox of schmaltzy, over-produced pop songs tied together by a barely-coherent love story.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why the characters in Webber’s musicals insist on singing all the time, even in between numbers: when they’re receiving mail, running down stairs, dying of cancer, and, yes, when they have nooses around their necks. The effect isn’t operatic or subversive, simply stupid and phony. Just as fake as the tombstones in the cemetery Christine goes to at one point is everyone’s sketchy motivations and lyricist Charles Hart’s even sketchier (or should I say nonexistent?) rhyming patterns. Why does the Phantom, for example, insist on smashing all of his full-length mirrors? Is he sad because he didn’t get his pity fuck or is he just looking for his secret tunnel? Either way: You’re ugly—now, will you stop singing already! Maybe opera was never meant to be sung in English, but if liking musical theater is not in your DNA, this theme park ride is likely to make you violently ill.