A fright at the 'Opera?
A wooden 'Phantom' provides neither genius nor madness, just irritation
Today, ''The Phantom of the Opera" lurches from Broadway to the megaplex, and it has a little something to irritate everybody. People looking for romance will find only cardboard lovers. People looking for a resounding musical will find it odd that the camera runs away from the lip-synching cast. And people looking for opera -- well, shame on you.
There is, however, in this shameless atrocity, a phantom (Gerard Butler), and he does haunt a big 19th-century Paris opera house with his face half-obscured by a white mask. With the aid of the dance instructor Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), he's been giving secret lessons to Christine Daa (Emmy Rossum), the orphaned vestal ingenue in the chorus of the Opera Populaire. For some time, the besotted Phantom has been trying to terrorize the new owners into making Christine the star.
After the Phantom drives out the company's Italian diva, La Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the plaudits and the massive dressing room are Christine's. And just in time for her debut, her childhood love appears, a young arts patron called the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson). The flame he wants to rekindle comes at a price for Christine -- the possessive Phantom wants her, too, and if Raoul doesn't watch out, the Phantom will force his pupil into being his bride and demolish the opera house.
As a preview, the Phantom lures her away to his Batcave down in the theater's dank bowels. To get there, the camera plows though floorboards and stage doors the same way that ''CSI" zooms through intestines. This lair is where he keeps the big seashell that doubles as a daybed and the organ on which he bangs out a steroidal, Vincent Price-worthy riff best described as schlock 'n' roll. He seduces Christine with the show's signature song, ''The Music of the Night," and a ride in his gondola. She's bewildered by images of herself clad in a wedding dress. The freaked-out cast and crew dub this man a ghost. Christine just calls him her ''angel of music," which is true in much the same way that Howard Stern is the king of all media.
The credits for ''The Phantom of the Opera" insist that Andrew Lloyd Webber authored these tunes. But they come crashing through the speakers with such punishing force that it wouldn't be wrong to think Jerry Bruckheimer might have written them. Music in this production comes at you like the killer in a horror film. There are people out there for whom ''The Phantom of the Opera" can never be too loud, too deadly, too gaudy, or too obese with bloated songs. But even they might have a little trouble with the fact that in director Joel Schumacher's hands the entire production often looks and feels like a Halloween halftime show. That moment will probably come during the big masquerade ball, where certain folks in the audience will turn to one another and ask about the actors dancing on-screen, ''Are they vogueing?"
For one thing, the shot selection is dubious. The camera will often look at anything other than who's singing (everyone except Driver does his or her own singing), and the editor seems to have it in for poor Rossum, who was previously seen nearly freezing to death in ''The Day After Tomorrow" and as Sean Penn's doomed daughter in ''Mystic River." Her trained singing voice flies like a songbird, but she often looks enchanted yet lifeless, like the pristine charm spinning in a music box. The film's preferred mode of musical choreography seems to be having the singer sing while on the march or on the run, which explains why the musical performances are so underwhelming.
Schumacher wrote the script with Lloyd Webber, and maybe they were both having ''Titanic" thoughts. Maybe they thought the famed climactic plummeting of the chandelier would conjure the same shivers of devastation as when James Cameron's ocean liner met that iceberg. (It doesn't.) ''The Phantom of the Opera" isn't enjoyable as a love story, and it's not especially moving as a tragedy. It should be noted that Lloyd Webber in his stage adaptation took the gothic parody out of Gaston Leroux's 1911 book and whipped it into a straight-faced soap opera.
Schumacher's film is, at times, unintentionally entertaining, as its tone shifts from ridiculous to overwrought. There are moments when the movie seems desperate to approach the lyric surrealism of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell's ''The Red Shoes" and Jean Cocteau's ''Beauty and the Beast," the foulness of Dario Argento's own Faustian ''Phantom" adaptation, or, at least, the insanity of Brian De Palma's ''The Phantom of the Paradise." But Schumacher's movie is never sexy or delirious enough. At one point, Raoul says about the Phantom, ''Clearly, Madame Giry, genius has turned to madness!" The movie shows flashes of neither.
What's missing from ''Phantom" is the fearlessness of certain movie stars to transcend the clunkiness: a Hugh Jackman, a Johnny Depp, or a Kirsten Dunst. Butler, Wilson, and Rossum don't have the charisma to stop this thing from steamrolling over them, but they'd make wonderful displays in a wax museum. Dishwater has more razzle-dazzle.
Richardson has fun playing with her fake ponytail and phonier French accent. But Driver, with her tantrums and flailing, steals the movie. It's the year's pettiest theft, and she's still terrible -- the kind of star that tops only Christmas trees. But unlike everyone else involved with this production, she at least knows how to make tinsel shine.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.