The Phantom of the Opera

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      Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. Rated PG.

      Now playing at the Capitol 6, Esplanade 6, Silver City Riverport, and Varsity Cinemas

      The Phantom of the Opera is faithful to the hugely successful stage production in the same way the first Harry Potter movies were to their literary counterparts. Banking heavily on audience familiarity with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it aims to please diehard fans at the expense of making new ones. This soulless exercise adds nothing to the recently resuscitated genre of the movie musical.

      For those new to both the pulp horror novel and its campy stage incarnation, Phantom is the story of a disfigured musical genius who haunts a Paris opera house in the 1870s. Over the years he surreptitiously trains a young chorus girl, Christine, who mistakes him for the "angel of music" that her late father promised would come along in his absence. Caught in a love triangle between her mysterious mentor and a childhood sweetheart who is now an influential patron, Christine's dilemma concerns not only her own fate but that of the opera as well.

      Flatliners to two Batman flicks), Joel Schumacher should by now be able to engineer the requisite suspense and spectacle that a glossy, high-budget production like this demands. But to Phantom he brings no ingenuity, imagination, or restraint. He relies instead upon needlessly complicated and unnecessary shots, set design, and special effects to give a cinematic quality to an otherwise inert and uninspired production.

      The acting is serviceable if uneven, veering wildly between bland and overblown, heartfelt and histrionic. Sneering and grimacing his way through the eponymous role, Gerard Butler is by all appearances a graduate of the Joey Tribbiani school of smell-the-fart acting. As the rising ingénue Christine, Emily Rossum has a lovely voice but fails to generate much passion for, or tension with, the other characters, leaving viewers unclear as to the internal conflicts that underlie her pained expressions and emoting.

      The musical numbers boast dedicated performances from a talented cast, but these are all lip-synched to prerecorded tracks, sanitizing the immediacy of the live show. And despite its fidelity to the stage version, the film nevertheless verges on self-parody, as when Christine first meets her beloved "angel" and the two make their long descent to his underground lair. The accompanying duet delivers the musical's most memorable and instantly recognizable song, but it is awkwardly performed against a pounding bass line glopped over with cheesy '80s synths and electronic handclaps. What should evoke danger and desire is laughably ersatz--like a theme-park haunted house seen in broad daylight.

      Obviously, to dismiss an Andrew Lloyd Webber production on the grounds that it is slick and sentimental is like kicking a dog for not reading Braille--dumb simplicity is a big part of its charm. As a substitute for the stage version, this Phantom of the Opera is a gift for ardent fans, even if has little to offer the uninitiated.