A second review requested by K. Wild, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Like just about anyone born after 1970 who loves musical theater, I had my Phantom of the Opera phase. I'm not sure when or how it ended, exactly, but it was well before December, 2004, when at long last The Phantom of the Opera The Movie bombasted its way into theaters, 18 years after the musical had premiered. And yet I still found myself sitting there opening weekend, duty-bound to see if there was anything in the sprawling concoction heaved up by Joel Schumacher, a filmmaker uniquely devoid of a sense of proportion or fear of being thought tacky, that could make me believe again in the transporting power of the music of the night.

There was not then. There still isn't.

Yet it's not enough to say "The Phantom of the Opera ('04) sucks because The Phantom of the Opera ('86) sucks, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is a farty toot-head". Love or hate the source material, the fact remains that The Phantom of the Opera is nowhere near the movie it could have been, committing one unforced error after another on its way to becoming one of the damned sloppiest major musicals of contemporary times. The cynic might say that the filmmakers knew they had an enormous pre-sold fanbase, and simply didn't need to care about doing a good job; but I legitimately don't want to be that cynical. Schumacher had been invested in this project for years before it was completed - I can't imagine that he just didn't give a shit about the material.

That material, of course, is one of the most popular stage musicals in the history of the medium, adapted from Gaston Leroux's 1910 romantic horror novel, which had been translated into Lord knows how many movies by the time Schumacher's version came along. The basic story is as familiar as it gets: young opera singer-in-training Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is able to pinch hit on the night of a grand gala at the Paris Opera (the fictional Opรฉra Populaire in the musical), when the stormy prima donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver) decides to pitch a hissy fit, and wins an enormous success. What nobody knows is that she has been receiving lessons from an unseen tutor, her "Angel of Music". What even Christine doesn't know is that this is actually a disfigured man living in the catacombs and sewers beneath the opera house, whose inhabitans refer to him in nervous whispers as the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler). When she connects with childhood friend and current patron of the Opรฉra, Raoul, Victomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), she pushes the shadowy Phantom into a jealous rage, and while he plots to have her firmly entrenched as the company's new leading soprano, he also works to fully possess the young woman whom he already has in an enraptured haze.

Every version of Phantom is basically a melodrama; in the case of the legendary 1925 Universal production, it's melodramatic horror, while the musical, with score by Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, and book by Webber and Stilgoe, is a melodramatic romantic triangle that juts out into horror here and there. The movie goes a little bit more in for thrills and chills than the stage version did, owing largely to some new orchestrations that live threateningly in the baseline, but the core is still swoony romance, and that's probably why the film committed one of the two absolutely crushing sins that would have turned it into a failure no matter how great everything else was - and in this Phantom of the Opera, there is nothing whatsoever that deserves to be called "great", except for maybe the costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne. We'll get to the other one in a moment, but let's pause for a moment to contemplate good ol' Gerard Butler, the pretty boy Phantom cast with an eye towards making the disfigured murderer a sex symbol who could compete with the handsome young Wilson (whose subsequent career of shifty, pathetic emblems of self-loathing masculinity makes it incredibly hard to take him seriously here, but that's not the fault of the movie or his performance) and Wilson's ludicrous shoulder-length wig.

Permit me to be blunt, dear reader, in stating directly that Butler's casting doesn't work on any level whatsoever. Madonna's lead performance in Evita, the last film made from a Webber show, wasn't necessarily any better, but at least she makes sense from a metanarrative and marketing perspective. Butler is just wrong. He's too attractive to be remotely plausible as the scarred, angry outcast - and the make-up design is quite ashamed to cover him up with more than a bad rash and a bit of modest scar tissue around the lips, compounding the problem.

"So distorted, deformed, it was hardly a face"

Nor was he nearly enough of a noteworthy heartthrob in 2004 to make up for it by re-making the role into a star vehicle. He's also not tremendously good as an actor, find one emotion per scene and clinging to it like a life raft, resulting in a far plainer Phantom than the material deserves; instead of a tragic Byronic antihero, the character is just a mopey creep.

But the worst of it, and it's not even a close race, is in his singing. It is mind-blowingly bad - it competes only with Pierce Brosnan's cow-giving-birth performance of "S.O.S." in Mamma Mia! for the title of worst vocal performance in a musical in the 2000s. Butler has to bark and bray his way through the musical's signature ballad, "The Music of the Night", leaping for notes that he can only hit through momentum, not through good pitch, and turning the song into an uncomfortable straining ruin. There are certain points - the first time he sings the line "The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside your mind" in "The Phantom of the Opera" is the clearest example - where he drops his AmerBritish accent and lets the Scots flow through him. He sounds, throughout, to be in dreadful pain. And that, infinitely more than his incongruous appearance, is what causes him to jam the brakes on the film and throw the audience out through the windshield.

That is one of the film's primary sins. The other one - the worse one, I'd say, given that I've thought about it constantly in the decade since I saw the film last - is that the sound mixing is the fucking worst. I have seen movies from 1929, where the microphones were hidden in potted plants, that didn't have such brutal shifts in the texture of the soundtrack. Of course, any musical where the songs are prerecorded and the actors lip-sync on set (generally not all that well, in this film) is going to show the seams between the two, but in Phantom of the Opera, it feels like they're singing on a different continent from the action depicted onscreen. Thankfully, it's mostly sung-through, so there's not that much spoken dialogue - though quite a lot more than in the show - but when it arrives it is dramatic and horrible, particularly during the lovers' secret banter in "Masquerade", where a sweet moment is turned into an earache. Or there's the grisly experience of "Stranger Than You Dreamt It", in which Butler sounds like he was delivering all his lines on the back of a truck speeding through a windstorm.

Mind you, just because Butler and the sound mixing are so utterly, unrelievedly vile that I have to separate them out, that doesn't mean that Phantom of the Opera has much of anything to recommend it. It's easier to praise the performances on a moment-by-moment level than any of them across the board: only Wilson is generally solid throughout, along with Miranda Richardson as the curt ballet mistress with A Dark Secret, but her role is too tiny to make a film-saving impact (she's also the only character in this Parisian-set story to speak with a French accent, because Miranda Richardson says "fuck you, I'm doing it"). Rossum's best moments are sublime, playing Christine as the guileless child that most films and stage productions tend to age up into her mid-20s, radiating an innocence that shades deeper into sorrow and fear as the film proceeds; but there are enough rocky patches in her performance that it's not flawless, and while it's a pity her career evaporated until TV saved it in 2011, this is hardly the kind of grand coming out as a leading lady the 18-year-old probably hoped for. She looks sleepy and distracted during the soaring love duet "All I Ask of You"; her singing is never better than satisfactory, and she has an enormous problem with the semi-parodic opera aria "Think of Me". Incidentally, nothing about The Phantom of the Opera indicates that Webber or Hart had even a micron of knowledge about actual opera. Driver goes way broad, and her Italian comic villain is the next best thing to a hate crime; it's also impossible to take her seriously as an actually talented, popular, and world-class diva, a reality that the entire rest of the plot springs from.

The staging is generally indifferent, save for a few scattered shots that prove Schumacher had seen Moulin Rouge! sometime in the three years since its release, and the utterly tacky lift at the start of the garish, over-lit "The Phantom of the Opera" sequence that proves he'd also seen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, and inaccurately assumed that he had earned the right to lick that film's taint, let alone pilfer one of its most famous images. Some moments - a series of high-angle tracking shots during "Prima Donna" the dreamy incoherence that precedes that ghastly Cocteau homage - are clever and lovely; and the way he stages the framing scenes from years in the future as a flickering silent film (albeit with sound) is well-done if not effective. Some parts - the baffling destruction of the fourth wall in "Masquerade" and the anachronistic choreography that pops up in the same number - are irritating and lousy. The vast majority of it, though, is just there, doing nothing in particular but plopping the action onscreen in a way that's a bit brighter, more glittery, and tackier than the stage version.

I don't know if it's the worst Phantom of the Opera that I can imagine - it has no space aliens or dubstep remixes of the songs - but it's surely the worst that could have been made under Webber's personal supervision. What isn't sleepy and tediously literal is messy and inept, shots slamming together rather than cutting neatly, the sets looking garish and flat, the performances drifting aimlessly and in no real relationship to each other. It feels like even an enthusiastically mediocre and hackish adaptation should have been better than this; this is an actively terrible motion picture that every reason to be bland and perfunctory. That's takes some kind of skill, I suppose, but it's not really something you'd want to brag about.