Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Misery of Bad Casting (I Saw Les Mis)

Hurray for my first post-grad school application article! If you think this is bad, imagine how it’s going to be if I actually get in. Scary.

I’m pretty sure everyone knows the feeling. You’re watching a movie, getting really into it, and then suddenly, an actor appears on screen, starts to speak, and you can just feel the needle scratching. You’re sitting there thinking, “Who in their right mind cast this person for this role? Were they high?”

The first time I remember thinking that (definitely not the first time it happened) was in Gangs of New York. You’re going along, wondering for the umpteenth time why Leo doesn’t have a damn Oscar yet, and suddenly Cameron Diaz is on screen. And it’s like, wait, what? Why? I still maintain that pretty much anyone would have been a better choice, but imagining Christina Hendricks in that role gives me shivers.

Anyway, such was my experience when I saw Les Miserables. I mean, I noticed other stuff too. Sure, everyone’s been going on and on about Anne Hathaway’s performance, but she was legitimately great. Hugh Jackman continues to be amazing in everything ever, Amanda Seyfried was well cast, and Eddie Redmayne was fine, I guess. I want to marry Aaron Tveit, who played Enjolras, and have adorable curly haired activist babies.

I also noticed other things about the film, like the extraordinary awkwardness of the cinematography (someone please show this guy how to focus a camera) and the way that Eddie Redmayne’s face looks ridiculous when he sings. And that it remains a really long story.

But then there was Russell Crowe, and all of this other stuff fell out of my head in honor of one really bad casting choice.

I’d stop here and explain the plot, but you probably already know it, so instead I’m going to just pause for about forty-five seconds while you remember.


I really didn’t think I’d hate Crowe’s casting nearly as much as I did. As an actor, I really respect Monsieur Crowe. He’s very talented, and I like to think he’s good at knowing when he needs to up his game. Unfortunately for him, it seems that he did not have enough game to up to play Inspector Javert. Pity.

If you’re familiar with the book or the musical, Javert is a man of black and white, of complete and utter contrasts. He believes only in God and the law, and does not think the two can be separated. I shudder to think of where he comes down on foreign policy, but there is something noble to be seen in his doggedness and obsession with justice. You can see where he’s coming from, and even though Jean Valjean’s is the argument supported by the narrative, Javert makes a solid case. He’s clipped, curt, and brilliant at what he does. You kind of end up liking him.

In the musical, we have the added dimension of thinking about how these characters are interpreted into sound as well. Javert, for instance, is usually portrayed with a clear, strong voice, that clips off his words and gives the impression that he has precisely as much to say as he is going to say – no more, no less.

Now, what didn’t I like this film’s interpretation of Javert? Well, for starters, Crowe resembles a teddy bear more than a terrifying gendarme. But I trust in an actor’s innate ability to, you know, act, so I wasn’t overly worried. What irked me more was that he never seemed to emote in the film. Javert is a passionate character. He’s basically the flip side not only to Jean Valjean, but also to the student Enjolras. Their devotion to their country has just led them on very different paths.

But what bothered me most of all was the fact that Russell Crowe simply does not have the voice to play Javert. It was that simple. Yes, he has a fine voice, but it’s not clipped. It’s not clear. And it really can’t reach most of those high notes. He sounded uncomfortable and a little constipated, and I’m sorry, but when you’re casting for a musical you have to think about these things.

These two, however, were perfect.
That’s really what this comes down to. The casting. Russell Crowe is a great actor, and there was no real reason for him to think that he should turn down an amazing part like Javert because he doesn’t have the vocal range. It was the casting director’s fault for offering it to him in the first place. And I struggle to think that there wasn’t an appropriately aged and talented star out there. I hear Ewan MacGregor’s still kicking around, so they clearly didn’t try their hardest.

It’s not so much that I feel personally offended by this or something, though I do have a good friend who is genuinely indignant that Keira Knightley was cast in Pride and Prejudice and goes off on an evilogue about her at every chance. It’s more that I feel slighted when something like this happens. It makes me feel like all those stories about how Hollywood is just after your dollar and no one cares about artistry are actually true.

I worked in LA for a while, and I can say that for the most part, the people who make things there are genuinely trying to make good art. Sure, there is always the consideration of the dollar, but by and large, everyone is passionate about something, and they do really pour their hearts into it. So it kills me when something as huge as a Les Miserables movie gets scuppered by bad casting. Did they only cast him because he’s famous?

As I said before, there were other things to note about this movie. It’s a fantastic adaptation with some wonky choices and generally great performances from everyone. It’s never easy to do an operetta on screen, especially one this expansive, and they did pull it off admirably. I just wish that someone else had played Javert.

Not kidding about how attractive Aaron Tveit is as Enjolras. You literally can't tear your eyes away.

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