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12.1.13

For Your Consideration: 'Smashed', 'Les Misérables', 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'

Smashed
Director-screenwriter James Ponsoldt returns to the theme of alcoholism in his second feature, after Off the Black from 2006. It follows the struggles of a young wife to get sober and how it distances her from her husband, who suffers from the same addiction. This view of the devastation of alcoholism is neither sentimental nor exaggerated for dramatic effect, seeming to have the touch of personal knowledge of addiction's impact, winning this watchable but not noteworthy film the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Neither of the leads, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), really seems up to the dramatic weight that falls on their characters. The central crises of the film therefore ring false (in fairness, part of the blame falls on the weak screenplay), leaving most of the great performances to actors in bit parts: Megan Mullally (Will and Grace, Parks and Recreation) as the sanctimonious principal at the wife's school, Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) as the fellow teacher who gets the wife into AA, and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as the wife's alcoholic mother.


Les Misérables
Whoever heard the first pitch to spend a fortune on making an elephantine Broadway musical from a sprawling Victor Hugo novel must have laughed. At 1,500 pages the book is impossible to adapt, even if you leave out all of Hugo's historical, political and artistic analysis. In the musical, a blockbuster created in the 1980s, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and librettists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (originally in French, with the English version by Herbert Kretzmer) gutted the story, leaving cardboard cutouts in the place of characters and a couple big ensemble numbers for the grand historical sweep of Hugo's view of history. Such a crazy thing could only have happened in France, where Victor Hugo is still widely read, but no one could have predicted that it would be such a hit in English.

In adapting the musical to a film version, released last month, director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision not to have the actors lip-synch with a prerecorded stereo track of the score: except for some of the ensemble and chorus scenes, the singing of the actors was captured in real time in front of the camera. Unfortunately, you have to go pretty deep down into the cast -- to Aaron Tveit's Enjolras -- to find anyone with a voice good enough to make this technique worthwhile. The leads -- Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway's Fantine, Amanda Seyfried's Cosette, Eddie Redmayne's Marius, and especially Russell Crowe's Javert -- are pretty faces whose singing is not nearly as flattering in vocal closeup. With tempos dragged out and some additional numbers (new text by James Fenton, screenplay by William Nicholson), the film reaches a deadly weight that no amount of spiffy cinematography and visual effects can lighten. Even the comic mugging of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter's buffoonish innkeepers ultimately falls flat. I have to agree with both Anthony Lane and David Denby on this one.

Celeste and Jesse Forever
This slender film, by young director Lee Toland Krieger, seems like it got its start as an idea for an Andy Samberg sketch on Saturday Night Live -- involving a couple's recurring hand job joke (don't ask) -- that could never play on network TV. Developed instead into a feature film, it has a tedious screenplay of annoying characters written by the actors who play two of them, Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation) and Will McCormack. Andy Samberg (haplessly) plays Jones's clueless husband as the two of them try to decide if they really do want to get divorced or not. The tedium would not have been as extensive if it had remained an SNL sketch.

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