Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween countdown: He served a dark and a stupid god

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall

I know quite a few people I like and whose opinions I respect won't agree with what I'm about to write. Not just friends, but apparently even Mister Stephen Sondheim himself. But Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd just isn't good.

In all fairness, it's not bad, either. But that's the disappointment. Because what Burton turns in is the sort of cowardly pseudo-musical and pseudo-horror film that Hollywood churns out for respectable people these days. And that really is what disappoints from Burton, of all people, who, in the first half of his career, often put out off-kilter movies with only the slightest concessions to present popular culture. A parody of 50's alien invasion films cross-pollinated with '70s disaster films? An ode to a cult film-maker notorious for being awful, shot in black-and-white? A horror comedy about a ghost that exorcises living people and wants to abduct a teenage girl as his bride?

But the grotesque and strange taste that made these films wonderful has congealed into something more "bubblegum goth", giving us a movie afraid to fully leap into the campy and also terrifying.  Burton is willing to give us a lot of blood and gore, but he's afraid to give us the sexual insanity of the Beggar Woman, Toby's final transformation into something as twisted as Sweeney, or Joanna murdering the insane asylum director. And of course, Mrs. Lovett has to feel bad about what she's doing, to some extent (missing the entire point of the character, but whatever). Our heroes have to be sympathetic, goshdarnit! And we have to have clear delineation between good and bad!

Heaven knows what Christopher Bond, the playwright whose work gave Sondheim the basis for Sweeney Todd by marrying the revenge motive to a more vicious Marxist reading of the story. After all, Bond rewrote King Lear to be less romantic and hopeful!

But this is really Burton giving into the most trite and cliche of his excesses: almost everything production designed to a somehow charming goth version of urban blight, cleavage-baring outfits for Helena Bonham Carter (regardless of appropriateness), and generic,ugly CGI that makes 18th Century London look like a video-game cutscene.

Burton really doesn't seem comfortable with the fact he's directing a musical, stripping the movie of almost every group chorus, shoving several songs off into dream sequences or fantasies, as if the audience will be hard-pressed to believe that people could just burst into song.  It doesn't help that Carter's voice is a slight and mediocre one, and that Johnny Depp sounds like he's trying to channel either Anthony Newley or David Bowie.

There are some moments that hint at the better job Burton could have done. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, though underused, are both living embodiments of nightmares of authority figures, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the barber/mountebank Pirelli is an unnerving mix of oily charm and barely-restrained rage.

Even Depp, in a few moments, hits the mark, such as when he rushes about London in his mind, brandishing a razor at every person he meets.

But for every moment that works, there's a song chopped to bits, or another godawful bit with Helena Bonham Carter, and it just becomes a junk food film again, every bit as much a mish-mash as Mrs. Lovett's pies.