The Phantom of the Opera (12A)

High camp, low note
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He just couldn't resist, could he? Despite clocking up box-office receipts of more than $3bn; despite the 80 million people who have already seen it on stage; and despite its never-ending runs in London and on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber just had to have a celluloid version made of his musical mega-hit The Phantom of the Opera. Apparently, he had high hopes of doing it in the 1980s with Michael Crawford as the lead, but these plans went awry in the wake of Lloyd Webber's split from the show's co-star Sarah Brightman - and a divorce lawyers' dream became cinema's escape.

Sadly, some feel-good stories just aren't meant to last. Moulin Rouge! and Chicago have made the campy musical respectable again, and Lloyd Webber wasn't going to miss out this time. The Phantom of the Opera will now be haunting multiplexes everywhere, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.

Not being one of the 80 million who have seen the stage show, I came to it in a spirit of open-hearted... oh, all right, I came expecting a pretty gruelling time, though it was still a surprise to discover the many styles of gruel there can be. Whatever the tone or tempo of Lloyd Webber's music, whatever the emotional palette of Joel Schumacher's direction, there's nowhere to hide.

The pianissimo beginning flatters to deceive. In ashen black and white, the story opens at an auction in a derelict opera house in Paris in 1919, where a valetudinarian gentleman in a wheelchair surveys the scene with a look of infinite melancholy. As the next lot - an enormous chandelier - is hauled up, the monochrome blooms into colour and we are transported back to the theatre's bustling heyday in 1870. Schumacher has stolen this flourish from James Cameron's rejuvenation of the ghostly hull in Titanic, but for ready-made pathos it's an effect worth stealing; the past simply melts into the present.

The opera house turns out to be in crisis - plus ça change - as two new managers (Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow) try to appease the terrible, tumultuous rage of the show's presiding eminence: yes, it's Minnie Driver, bravely playing to type as the diva Carlotta, and flouncing out of rehearsal in time for the ingénue chorus-girl Christine (Emmy Rossum, sensationally pretty and sweet-voiced) to step in and wow them on opening night.

That Christine has what it takes is down to the tutelage of the legendary "genius", the Phantom, who's been living in the opera-house basement rent-free for years, though what he's been eating and who's been ironing his shirts all this time are mysteries the story doesn't care to enter into.

Gerard Butler, in the title role, doesn't have the pallor of a man who's shirked the sunlight for most of his life, and, aside from the mask that hides a quarter of his face, he looks in pretty good shape for a recluse. His real problem, however - and this might be true for fans as much as for agnostics - is a fatal lack of charm: he blusters, he broods, he tears up the scenery, but at no point does he convey the romantic presence that would spark this "beauty and the beast" story into life. Patrick Wilson, as Raoul, his rival for Christine's love, isn't overburdened with charisma either, though, unlike Butler, he gets through most of his vocal duties unscathed.

Yet it's hard not to pity them both for what they've been asked to sing. Faced with Lloyd Webber's galumphing pop-opera arrangements and tin-eared lyricism, you begin to realise that the 1980s was exactly the time this ought to have been made. Wedged somewhere between Bonnie Tyler and Adam and the Ants, its New Romantic stylings and ubiquitous candlelight might not have been out of place; in 2004, it looks dreadfully overwrought and dated. Even when music isn't playing, it grates on the ear. Why is Miranda Richardson the only member of the cast to speak wiz ze French accent? Wasn't there anyone on set who knew that "monsieur" is not pronounced "mishoor"?

Schumacher somehow drags out this carnival of banality to 142 minutes, though at times it feels more like 142 years. But let's acknowledge the abysmal possibility that many Phantom-fans might love it.

Zach Braff wrote, directed and starred in his debut movie Garden State, and, for all I know, made the tea and bacon sarnies for the crew as well. He plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling actor who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral and for a reckoning with his emotionally distant father (Ian Holm). "Large", as he's known, seems to sleepwalk through his life, perhaps the consequence of spending so much of it numbed by medication.

As a homecoming tale it sounds rather bleak, yet Braff's script hits a light, quirky tone, bolstered by the supporting performances of Peter Sarsgaard as Large's best friend and Natalie Portman as a kooky lass with a fondness for bulldogs and hamsters. Portman could almost be an older self to the small-town Lolita who dazzled Tim Hutton in Beautiful Girls, to which Garden State, with its alternating moods of friskiness and melancholy, is a natural heir.

It isn't quite as involving in its portrayal of high-schoolers who never moved on, but it keeps you with it. I loved the moment when Large, sitting in a doctor's office, absently scans the certificates that crowd every inch of the wall, then notices that one last certificate, the overspill, has been nailed to the ceiling. Too early to call Braff a wunderkind, but he's on to something.

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