Friday, December 21, 2007

Review :: Sweeney Todd

I haven't seen the musical. I have no intentions of ever seeing the musical. I watched Sweeney Todd as a movie and that's how I am going to approach it in this review.

I can never really get a handle on how I feel about Tim Burton. I actually like many of his films, especially Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which, yes I know, he technically did not direct) and Sleepy Hollow. At the same time, however, while I really like what he has done, I'm often struck by the suspicion that, rather than being a visionary or an auteur, Burton is actually an artist mired in a state of creative limbo; I fear that he cannot escape the over-produced gothic pretensions for which he is known. Big Fish, easily his best film to date, succeeded so well because it managed to force those pretensions into the service of a story that truly used them instead of simply relying wholly upon them. With Big Fish, Burton seemed to transcend himself and really grow as an artist. But he last two films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the miserable Corpse Bride, both felt disingenuous and like awkward attempts to create a trademark "Burton" film. I had hoped that Big Fish signaled a maturation in Burton's work; but then I feared that it were merely an interesting digression in an otherwise stalling career. So I entered Sweeney Todd with mixed feelings, hoping for an enjoyable Burton film and fearing that I might get exactly that.

While Sweeney Todd did little to assuage my fears about Burton's inability to transcend his own style, it did demonstrate once again that, when used correctly, the Burton style can still create enjoyable, if somewhat vacuous, films. Based on the Broadway musical, and very much a musical itself, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of, as you'd expect, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), a barber-turned-serial-killer out for blood and vengeance against the London judge (Alan Rickman) who violently separated Todd from his wife and who sent him away to prison under false charges. Upon returning to London years later, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who tells him of his wife's death and of his daughter's adoption by the same judge who sent Todd away. Mrs. Lovett becomes his partner in crime and together they ghoulishly slaughter unsuspecting victims, whose only crime was wanting a good shave, and they then... well, they then cook them and serve them in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop.

The biggest problem with Sweeney Todd is that it doesn't really work as a movie. Perhaps it works better as a musical, I'm not sure. But while the performances are generally solid, especially Depp's, the characters are really very, well, obvious. They are exactly what they seem to be, each and everyone one of them. There is never any question that Todd will begin slitting throats; Rickman's Judge Turpin is simply as cruel and depraved as you think he is; the young sailer Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) is the virtuous lovestruck young man; etc, etc. And while each character is essentially a cartoon of itself, we are never really given a reason to believe in any of them. Todd is a murderous monster and yet he is never justified or explained. He just is. Why he begins killing people at random, people who have neither done anything to him nor who facilitate his revenge, is a mystery, especially since, as we see in a long song/montage in which he cuts many, many throats, he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself but rather simply going through the motions of murder. Why Mrs. Lovett, who is at least as monstrous as Todd, wants to help him is an even bigger mystery. I'm not familiar with the language of the stage but in the language of film this type of omission is just sloppy and rather obnoxious. If you want your main characters to kill and cook people you should at least go out of your way to earn it. What the film actually feels like is a the retelling of a legend that the audience is already familiar with and simply accepts without argument or hesitation. Unfortunately, the story of Sweeney Todd is neither well-known nor interesting enough to warrant this kind of treatment.

That being said, there is enough in Sweeney Todd to enjoy that I'd still recommend it. Those Burton pretensions really pay off in the production department. While I still wish he'd outgrow them, his gothic sensibilities really work well here, much like they did in Sleepy Hollow. London has never before looked this dirty and this disgusting which, of course, means that it looks beautiful on film; Mrs. Lovett's over-sized oven and meat grinder are hilarious and appropriately terrifying; and the blood, which flows liberally in this solidly 18A-rated film, is garishly red and thick. The movie actually meanders a bit and gets distracted by a b-plot about two young lovers that isn't really all that interesting. But once the blood starts flowing, and flow it does, the movie regains its focus and becomes rather macabrely enjoyable as we all get to see what we wanted to see coming into the film: Johnny Depp slitting throats. Speaking of Depp, he is once again quite entertaining. Depp has lately managed to make a career out of playing quirky/cartoonish characters, something I'm not sure I like. Just look at the three-movie fiasco that is Pirates of the Caribbean. While I'm still not convinced that Depp is a great actor, I am convinced that under the right conditions he can really perform and those conditions seem to be right when Burton is around.

Of course, the big question going into the film not whether Depp can act but whether he can sing. For the most part, Depp (and everyone else in the film for that matter, except for maybe Carter) is able to pull off the songs. He's not Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! and he seems to be able to only sing one style but he gets the job done. However, the big problem turns out to be not the actors but to be the songs themselves. Most of the movie is sung and about halfway through you start to suspect that the lines are simply being sung for the sake of singing them. There is nothing truly remarkable or memorable about any of the songs and I walked out of the theater unable to remember the melody of any of them, a major failing when it comes to a musical.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd is a mixed bag. The combination of the light-hearted musical atmosphere and the slasher-style blood splatters, not to mention the cannibalism that our antiheroes foist on the unsuspecting London populace, creates a strange and almost schizophrenic feel, a juxtaposition which I suppose is intended to be part of the story's charm but which really didn't work for me. It ultimately feels like something was missing, some bit of social or political commentary, some shred of poetry that could tie the whole thing together and explain why Todd and Lovett resorted to such extreme measures. And yet, even with all these criticisms of it, I'd still recommend Sweeney Todd. It's ghoulish and fun... if you don't think about it too much. And hey, any movie in which you get to see Sacha Baron Cohen's throat slit can't be all bad, right?


Nevis said...

Hey, thanks for my review finally. You took the words out of my mouth...Personally I don't think Burton has made an origional movie since Beetleguice. Seriously, his movies seem like they're almost pantomimes of themselves. Does that make sense?

dcornelius said...

Yup, it does, though I still like some of his newer work, especially Big Fish. I think Burton could be so much better than he is if he only gave himself a chance. Alas...

Also, love the new avatar. That little pug is gonna take over your life, I just know it.

Life of Turner said...

Although I haven't seen Sweeney Todd (and I'm not sure if I will), your review inspired me to look at Burton's filmography and see if you were right. Although I have enjoyed many of his films (including Charlie), only Big Fish really stands out as a movie of artistic merit. The other movies are entertaining, and in part to see how "Tim Burton" will visualize it. He might not be a film lover's ideal, but he certainly appeals to the fanboy mentality. Tim Burton is a true product of the 90s pop culture sensibility, and I think I'm okay with that.