Afternoon Goodness plus Sweeny Todd Oddness

Today began with a stupendous brunch and early afternoon tea in the company of graphxgrrl, plus formicadinette, maudelynn, and their respective sweeties; and then graphxgrrl joined me and moriarty6 for a matinee screening of Sweeny Todd.

[Discussion to follow; mild spoilers may occur. Consider yourself warned, read at your peril, etc.]

And now I’m trying to write a good, solid review of Sweeny Todd and finding myself a little bit short on things to say. I mean, all the elements of greatness are present: Alan Rickman with sexy doom voice (check!), Johnny Depp all shaggy and tragic (check!), Helena Bonham-Carter in magnificent crazy-ass wardrobe (check!), Tim Burton at the helm (check!) … and yet somehow, it wasn’t very satisfying. Yes, I know. I’m sitting here trying to do the math, and I agree — it just doesn’t add up.

The movie fails on some fundamental level, and I just can’t put my finger on what it is. Any number of things could be noted as “less than stellar,” yet none of these things individually should mean the sinking of the show. And yet. And yet.

Please allow me a moment to talk my way around the point. I said of The Corpse Bride that it was a lazy story shagging on a beautiful chaise lounge; and I stand by that assessment. But of Sweeny Todd there’s no stink of laziness — on the contrary, it’s frenetic and loud, energetic and lavishly produced. There are moments of exquisite comic glory, and there’s even a stab or two at real tragedy.

So why didn’t I enjoy it very much?

Perhaps because it lacks the bite it advertises. Rickman’s character is a dull paper-doll of two-dimensional mustache-twirling villainy; Todd as the homicidal barber is too bone-deep crazy to muster the true and vicious malice of the miserably sane. His maniacal vow that He Will Have Vengeance!OMG !!! eleventy111!!! is undermined when he shotguns his wrath in many of the wrong directions, and he doesn’t ask enough questions when he returns home. I understand that the glory of fanaticism is redoubling the efforts when you’ve lost sight of the objective, but real fanaticism — real obsession — incubates in the horror of those early questions. It revels in the tragedy of the answers, and uses the pain as compost for the hate.

Maybe that’s all it is. For all that I felt the first half of the movie was annoyingly front-loaded to establish Todd as a tragic figure, a human monster, a broken and struggling creature in search of a place … it just didn’t do a very good job. I didn’t like him (and I think I was supposed to, at least a little). I didn’t like Mrs. Lovett, though she rang more true to me than Todd did. Her decision to jettison the one person who truly loves her in order to protect a man who’ll scarcely give her the time of day — that moment was pitiful in its honesty, and it stood out as such. And I think that’s part of the problem.

The moments that rang true and fierce were few enough and far enough between that I can point them out and count them on one hand. It is shockingly appropriate that Todd’s splattershot wrath is turned against his own past loved ones in a moment of offhanded rashness. It is a verse of veracity when Todd and the Judge confess in duet that they’re two of a kind, but really — if you-as-viewer haven’t figured that out by the time the moment of clarity arrives, you deserve a gentle boot in the ass.

Is it that Sweeny Todd is a mile wide and an inch deep? Is it all flash and no substance?

I can’t say as much for certain, because for all my joking glee at the casting and the scenery, the bones of a solid tragedy are truly in place. A man is wronged, robbed, and jailed for a crime uncommitted. His wife poisons herself, his daughter is the ward (and soon to be unwilling bride) of his nemesis. At its core, this is ostensibly a story about a good man who goes bad. If it isn’t, then it isn’t very interesting, because it’s just a story about a bad man doing bad things for disposable reasons.

But I was never convinced that (a). Todd was ever good to begin with, really, and (b). that he’s anything but bugnuts crazy now, and not “bad” per se. Dangerous, yes. A lunatic, yes. A monster, most definitely. But not a very human one.

Of course, there’s always the chance that I want too much of this story, but if that’s true than it’s only because — as I said — the bones of a better story are in place. It’s the execution that derails it for me, and good heavens it must’ve done something seriously wrong to leave me with a “meh” in my mouth after watching Depp and Rickman sing a peculiarly intimate duet about how much they love women. Do you understand how badly this movie must’ve screwed up? DO YOU?

Anyway. I grow tired of philosophically floundering in public, so I will leave you with this — Sweeny Todd is pretty to look at, dull to watch, and oddly off-putting in ways that have nothing to do with the gore or the lack of color saturation. If you love Rickman and/or Depp you should (and no doubt will) see it; but don’t ask too much of this film, because it is ill-prepared to deliver.

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