"Diane Arbus" isn't Diane Arbus the 20th century American icon; she's an imaginary composite Arbus. That's part of Fur 's self-important problem. The film is like a magic-house maze of mirrors--pretty but confusing unsatisfying and never-ending. It's also a Cliff Notes' version of Arbus as an artist. Kidman's Arbus who is transitioning into a solo artist's career is torn between split lives: A forbidden artistic affair with a full-body-haired Lionel (Downey) and her doting domestic husband Allan (Ty Burrell). Earlier in her life Arbus' father a furrier influenced his daughter's idea. In fact Fur's whole through-line is about hair of some sorts as Arbus sees herself as part of the imperfect obscured unshaven world she photographs. The real Arbus committed suicide in 1971 and this is her 122-minute tortured journey to understand herself amid the naturalistic damaged beauty of armless smallish characters. Sounds like a fun night out at the movies doesn't it? Kidman won't get any nominations for her Diane Arbus. But when the book is closed on her career playing Arbus will be regarded as one of her more fascinating performance. After her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours and then the very strange Birth amid broad comedies like Bewitched and Stepford Wives Kidman has shown her moody gazes before. She's sold all of us on understanding an artist's psychotic limits. Her performance as Arbus--nuanced and complex probably in need of more than one viewing (though the movie may prevent that)--is limited by unoriginality. In a Beauty and the Beast-inspired turn Downey Jr. plays the hairy Lionel not as a reclusive but instead conveys emotion through his warm eyes and controlled confident voice. Arbus finds his sensitivity and Casanova-esque flirting irresistible. Director Steven Shainberg best known for his kinky little indie Secretary chooses Fur as his follow up four years later. That’s a good--and bad--thing. His TV commercials background imbues his work with slick production sheen. Shainberg's hand-crafted meticulousness is evident from start to finish--from the 57-day shoot in New York to the subtle Alice in Wonderland visual allusions in Lionel's apartment to the 30-second shots of Kidman's porcelain face contemplating internal conflict. This is a special movie as was Secretary which won the Sundance Film Festival 2002's Grand Jury prize. Shainberg collaborating once again with Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson blurs the boundary lines of the three acts and mirrors the story’s messiness. Problem is it's confusing unappealing discomforting and sprawling in its artistic conceit. What's left is tedium guarded respect (maybe mild admiration) but certainly not affection. Fur is selfish in its perspective assuming that we care anything at all about the real—or imagined—Diane Arbus.
The tragic opera tells the story of a disfigured musical genius (Gerald Butler) who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera waging a reign of terror over its occupants [cue the organ music]. Think The Elephant Man meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame--except this particular "monster" has some serious sex appeal. I mean honestly his only "disfigurement" is some scarring on one side of his face which he covers with a rather classy mask. No big whoop. But I digress. When he falls desperately in love with the lovely ingénue Christine (Emmy Rossum) who has lived in the opera house for most of her life the Phantom devotes himself to molding the young soprano into a star exerting a strange sense of control over her as he nurtures her extraordinary talents. But when Christine falls for the dashing Raoul (Patrick Wilson) all hell breaks loose as the Phantom's growing jealousies threatens to tear everyone apart [OK now it's really time to cue the organ music].
Fans will no doubt be happy their favorite musical has finally made it to the big screen but the musical's original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman have been replaced in the movie version by hot young actors. This is a very wise decision considering the film's rather longwinded nature. In other words even though the Phantom performers keep singing and singing and then sing some more at least they are appealing to watch (and they did do all their own singing). Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) is particularly effective as the Phantom all brooding mysterious and far more intriguing a suitor than pretty boy Raoul played blandly by Wilson (HBO's Angels in America). With her alabaster skin and long luscious locks Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) also does a nice job as Christine. But she is unfortunately limited to only a few range of emotions--either all doe-eyed and somber over her Phantom doe-eyed and gushy over Raoul or just plain doe-eyed. As for the supporting players Minnie Driver nearly steals the show as the Italian soprano diva La Carlotta. As the only breath of fresh air in the musty opera house you definitely crave more of her.
It's taken about 15 years to bring Webber's smash hit to the big screen. Apparently after winning every known theater award for Phantom the legendary producer-composer approached director Joel Schumacher in 1988 to do the movie after being impressed by Schumacher's work on The Lost Boys. Hmmm The Lost Boys to Phantom of the Opera--I'm still trying to tie that one together. Anyway Webber had to postpone production for personal reasons and then Schumacher was busy doing such films as Tigerland and Phone Booth. Finally the time was ripe to make Phantom coming on the heels of the musical movie boom started by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. Schumacher certainly incorporates all the right elements from the young and talented cast to the opulent sets and magnificent costumes. The problem is the material: Phantom really isn't all that compelling of a story. Sure the stage production was and still is a theatrical event especially as the Phantom moves on catwalks all over the theater and the impressive chandelier comes crashing down on the stage. But for the film adaptation there needs to be something more than just grand posturing set pieces and operatic music. Maybe a little more dialogue? A sex scene? Anything?