C'est la Vie

Les Misérables
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Kicking and Screaming
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

IT'S WORTH REMEMBERING that "les misérables" translates as "the wretched" or "the outcasts" rather than "the miserable ones." Though the protagonist of Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel, Jean Valjean, spends 20 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, he's more resilient than miserable; the story is really about man's inhumanity to man, and about how even society's "wretched" have the potential for benevolence. This point probably matters less to fans of the Broadway musical than admirers of the book, although both groups are apt to have their own definitions of misery after watching Claude Lelouch's no-singing, no-dancing, no-substance movie. Thus begging the question: Who is this unfaithful, long-winded soaper really intended for? Fans of Demi Moore's "freely adapted" Scarlet Letter? As far as I can tell, Les Misérables, the film, is meant mainly to satisfy its self-indulgent director, and to lure unsuspecting "misérables" into le cinéma.

Lelouch's Jean Valjean is actually named Henri Fortin (Jean-Paul Belmondo); he's a chauffeur in the early 1900s who's wrongly imprisoned on the charge of killing his boss. Or maybe the film's Valjean is Fortin's son Henri (Belmondo again), a former middleweight boxing champ who becomes a furniture mover, a professional thief, and a small-scale Oskar Schindler, driving a family of Jews to the Swiss border during the German occupation. Then there's Jean Valjean himself (Belmondo, in a white wig), who's seen in periodic dramatizations while the younger, illiterate Henri is being read portions of the novel. Amid the many temporal discontinuities, clips from other Misérables movies, and allusions to the book (and Lelouch's own life), the film runs from the French Revolution to the invasion of Normandy, during which Fortin single-handedly destroys a Nazi bunker and poses for an American soldier's movie camera before being offered the job of town mayor. At this point, the viewer can't help but wonder: Is this bon homme Jean Valjean or Forrest Gump?

Although the connections between Belmondo's triple role and the character of the novel are strained when not ridiculous ("I am Jean Valjean!" Henri's son exclaims), Lelouch does manage some authentic drama in his depiction of a Jewish couple who are separated for years while attempting to flee the Gestapo. But this material clearly deserves a movie of its own--not a supporting role in a convoluted celebration of a Frenchman's incredible heroism.

The misérables of Kicking and Screaming likewise suffer the world's cruelties: They've just graduated from college. They're terribly anxious about their future, their girlfriends, and their future girlfriends. And because they can't bear to face responsibility or rejection, they remain dependent on beer, impertinent conversation, and another "semester" on campus in order to support their escapism. Sound familiar? Of the movie's five male buddies, all are overly educated underachievers, yet each bears a distinguishing trait: One's sensitive (Josh Hamilton); one's cynical (Chris Eigeman); one's lazy (Carlos Jacott); one's naive (Jason Wiles); and one's a few years older (Eric Stoltz). No doubt you've met such kids before, either in life or the movies. Aside from presenting Stoltz as a clean shaven slacker, writer-director Noah Baumbach (age 25) maintains his characters' preference for familiarity, and assumes the audience likes it that way too.

Thus, every scene in Kicking and Screaming begs viewer identification by evoking college(-movie) archetypes: Getting carded at clubs is humiliating; spilling bongwater on the rug is a drag; masturbating daily is common among recent grads; cafeterias tend to give only one entree per person; roommates who button their pants after leaving the bathroom are gross; guys who wear leather jackets and a silver hoop in each ear are obnoxious; Nick Drake, Chow Yun-Fat, and War and Peace are cool; "townie bars" with country music jukeboxes are fun places to get hammered; Prague is a cliché; Milwaukee is a nightmare; and fucking a cow is always better, hypothetically, than losing your mom. I could go on, although it's simpler to mention that the movie runs 90 minutes.

Perhaps because he's the son of a film critic (the Village Voice's Georgia Brown), Baumbach is able to anticipate--and preemptively dismiss--his movie's own negative reviews. So when the sensitive guy's cute girlfriend Jane (Olivia D'Abo) critiques his chatty, pop culture-laden short story for being "slight," we're supposed to think that Jane, as one of the film's many mildly annoying female enigmas, is just being a spoilsport. But Jane brings up a valid question: Should youth-market fiction strive to be meaningful rather than authentic, especially if the genre has said all it needs to? Unfortunately, Baumbach never addresses the topic again. A sensible guy himself, he saves the film's sole moment of true romance for the final shot, then defers to a Freedy Johnston tune for the closing credits: "Don't try to be an inspiration/Just wastin' your time, time, time."

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