WEEKEND XTRA: ‘SWEENEY TODD’ REVIEW

01.20.08 10 years ago 85 Comments

Sometimes people ask my opinion about stuff.  I like that.  Saves me the trouble of trying to get their attention through shouting and stick-pokery.  Anyway, since people often ask me to review stuff, I’ll now be trying to add reviews of stuff I’ve seen when I see it.

Full disclosure: I can count the number of musicals I’ve enjoyed on one hand… okay, I could count them on a stump because I can’t think of any.  I just find the concept of characters expressing themselves through song a little… (hey, why not poetry or interpretive dance?) frou-frou. 

Still, I was hoping Tim Burton’s take on a Steven Sondheim play about a wronged barber who slits the throat of anyone who looks at him funny might help change my mind.  My love of revenge flicks is roughly equivalent to my hatred of musicals.  

And, well… almost. Sweeney Todd seems like it’s probably a great play.   The story of Benjamin Barker’s transformation from honest barber to serial killer (sort of a misanthropic Count of Monte Cristo with a straight razor – deliciously dark) is cleverly wrought and compelling – all the more so for someone who hasn’t seen the work in it’s original form.  But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking, “Ugh, not another goddamned song…” every time the string section swelled.  In fact, I think the ever-present, non-diegetic orchestra (the film often swaps chorus pieces from the play, leaving just the big band accompaniment, mixed way too loud) was the film’s biggest stumbling block.

The strings, the horns, the timpanis, the God knows whatses – they’re always there.  Competing with the vocals during the songs and lurking during the quiet moments like an extra villain, you just want to shout, “Hey, can you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to watch a movie here!”    

And outside of the clanging and the honking, it’s a fun flick.  We know so much of the basic story – Sweeney comes back for revenge, slits throats, and grinds up his victims to make meat pies – that keeping us guessing is a challenge.  Despite glossing over a few things (for instance, what was Barker accused of when he got sent away?) that it easily could’ve explained (I would gladly trade a courtroom scene setting up Barker’s banishment with, say, the one where Barker’s daughter sings to her parakeets, or where Sweeney sings a love song to his razor), the plot has enough nooks and crannies to carry it all the way through. 

Its strength is that it never tries to make Sweeney seem like a nice guy. Sure, he wants justice on those who’ve wronged him, but he’s also not above kicking a few pigeons on his way to the courthouse, so to speak.  That he takes his pain out on basically everyone gives the story a sense of reality amidst the camp. 

From Sweeney on down, most of the characters are well played and a lot of fun.  Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Tim Burton) is delightfully complicated as Mrs. Lovett, even if she can’t really sing and I couldn’t tell what the hell she was saying when she did.  Alan Rickman plays Alan Rickman pretty competently, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s few minutes of screen time are probably the best of the movie – gratuitous man camel toe or no.  Good child actors are tough to find, but Ed Sanders as Toby, Mrs. Lovett’s adopted son, is probably the best singer of the bunch.  The expendable one is Sweeney’s daughter, who doesn’t do much besides sing songs to her parakeets and have yellow eyebrows (Jesus, those are creepy – is she supposed to be an albino?).   

Verdict: Enjoyed the movie, still hate musicals.  Hey, how about a non-musical adaptation of a musical?  Now there’s an idea.

 

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