[Screen It]

(2004) (Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum) (PG-13)

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Drama/Musical: A mysterious, masked figure falls for and tries to further the career of a young and beautiful singer in the 19th century, Parisian opera house that he haunts.
It's Paris 1919, and an elderly, wheelchair-bound man is brought to an auction at the once grand but now dilapidated opera house. The sight of the place brings back memories to Raoul (PATRICK WILSON) when he was the young and dashing patron there in 1870.

During that time, the opera was undergoing big changes with Andre (SIMON CALLOW) and Firmin (CIARAN HINDS) taking over, as the previous owner could no longer put up with demands of lead diva, Carlotta (MINNIE DRIVER). The one constant, however, is the stagehands' belief in The Phantom of the Opera (GERARD BUTLER), a reportedly masked and mysterious figure thought to haunt the place, and whose production-related demands occasionally appear in written form.

His latest concerns Christine Daee (EMMY ROSSUM), a young performer who's been brought to the forefront after Carlotta refuses to perform in a new show, much to the chagrin of ballet mistress Madame Giry (MIRANDA RICHARDSON), whose daughter, Meg (JENNIFER ELLISON), is Christine's best friend. Raoul also knows Christine from the past, and the two soon fall in love, even as still she believes that her late father sent an angel of music to watch over her. In this case, she begins to believe that The Phantom is that angel, but his intentions and behavior are not always heavenly.

When those running the opera don't follow his demands and especially after learning that Christine has fallen for Raoul, the mysterious, masked man sets out to get his way, no matter the costs, including that of others' lives.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Long, long ago in a lifetime far, far away, I was a college student impressed by my fellow classmates who had the time and energy to work on various theatrical productions in addition to their regular studies. That was not only due to the dedication and talent that was on display, but also because our theater building was supposedly haunted by Lucinda, the ghost of a former student.

A little detective work showed that the facts regarding her earthly demise didn't exactly match up, but the stories of guardian angel type behavior as well as some decidedly spooky encounters certainly made for some goose bump-inducing moments.

Of course, I later learned that many a theater has its resident ghost, meaning either that such places are decidedly spirit friendly or working in such environs is hazardous for one's health. Perhaps that's what inspired Gaston Leroux to pen "The Phantom of the Opera," a work that first appeared on the big screen in the 1925 film starring Lon Chaney as the infamous title character.

The story was filmed a number of times following that, including a 1943 musical version starring Nelson Eddy and Claude Reins. I'm not sure if that's what eventually inspired a certain British theatrical composer, but in 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber took the venerable story and turned it into a lavish theatrical production that ended up winning seven Tony Awards. With a number of decent if overblown numbers, the dramatic and signature organ solo, and, of course, the famous swinging chandelier, the play was a big hit and toured all around the world.

All of which, oddly enough, brings us to "Chicago." With its financial and critical success upon hitting the big screen back in 2002, it was only a matter of time before the movie musical floodgates opened in hopes of returning the genre to its place of prominence not seen in decades. It's too bad that "Phantom" is the first through the gates since then.

As a disclaimer, I must admit that I wasn't terribly impressed with the overall effort when it was on the stage, and that feeling has transcended to this movie version. As written and directed by Joel Schumacher ("Veronica Guerin," "Phone Booth") who co-wrote the screenplay with Webber, the film's ultimate downfall then and now is its story.

Or lack thereof. Simply put, there isn't enough narrative to carry this massive production, especially when it clocks in at 130 plus minutes. Loosely following the original literary work and movie's plot -- but with the obvious inclusion of Webber's musical numbers -- this effort tells the tale of the familiar if deranged but misunderstood phantom falling for the young and beautiful opera star. When she falls for someone else, all hell breaks loose (as does the signature chandelier).

There's potential there, but the writers just don't flesh it out enough to hold our attention. The fact that the characters pretty much fall into the same trap doesn't help matters, meaning we don't really care about them or the ultimate outcome of the romantic triangle. Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast" seems positively Shakespearean in comparison.

While she's stunning to behold, Emmy Rossum ("The Day After Tomorrow," "Mystic River") isn't as captivating when it comes to her character (a fault attributed to her performance as well as the script) and while she holds her own singing, her voice won't knock anyone over. The same holds true for Gerard Butler ("Timeline," "Dracula 2000") and Patrick Wilson ("The Alamo") as her two suitors. While their acting and vocal talents are adequate for a touring version of the musical, they don't have the verve one would expect in a Broadway production, and the script similarly lets them down in terms of creating engaging or sympathetic characters.

Then there's the fact that Webber's musical numbers run out of gas and then wade around in sappy melodrama during the second half. The earlier ones, including the title song and others, however, are decent and certainly memorable. The same holds true for the film's production values that start out terrific and then end up looking like something out of Schumacher's "Batman and Robin" set (I kept expecting Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze to appear and frost-over everyone).

The beginning, however, and which is the film's best offering, is outstanding. Starting with a still image of 1919 Paris that then segues into moving images shot to look like ancient film stock, the setting then moves inside the now dilapidated opera house. With the raising of the crashed chandelier, however, the operatic space is reborn back into its former glory, complete with sharp images and an overall, lush and vibrant look. It's a technique utilized before, but it's nevertheless still visually powerful to behold.

It's too bad the rest of the film -- and especially the story and characters -- doesn't follow suite. While diehard fans of the London to Broadway musical may think it's the greatest thing since "Cats" (please, oh please don't let that become the next, big-budget movie musical), I was bored much of the time, with only a handful of musical numbers and some set designs managing to break that state, if only momentarily.

Not horrible, but certainly not as good as "Chicago" or any number of big screen musicals that preceded it, "The Phantom of the Opera" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 3, 2004 / Posted December 22, 2004

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