Tim Burton Directing Johnny Depp in a Victorian-Era Cannibal Musical Should Work--Shouldn't It?
There's a disquieting feeling of déjà goo as Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd opens with a sweeping title sequence of weathered machinery ferreting gallons of liquid from one place to the next. Maybe it's just the way the poorly computer-generated rivulets of blood dribble stickily on gears and conveyor belts like candy apple syrup, but there's a striking similarity to the ocean of chocolate poured and molded into bars by equally intricate automation at the start of Burton's previous effort, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's a bad omen when the man who previously gave us Sarah Jessica Parker's head grafted to a decapitated Chihuahua in Mars Attacks! announces from the very first frame of his new movie that he's run out of ideas.
At least he's got great material to play with. Stephen Sondheim's multi-Tony Award-winning musical about the murderous barber of British penny-dreadful legend has some of the most unforgettable verbal badinage in American theater, and while Burton's style of enchanted weirdness isn't quite heartless enough for this Grand Guignol material, it's a reasonable enough match. (What director would have been a better choice? Maybe David Fincher, or--ye gads--Eli Roth?) And when Burton's everyman muse Johnny Depp, cast as the hollow-eyed and shock-headed Todd, glowers into frame muttering "There's a hole in the world/ like a great black pit/ And the vermin of the world/ inhabit it" you're inclined to believe him.
Todd is tortured by the knowledge that, because he had the bad fortune to marry a beautiful woman (Laura Michelle Kelly) in a city owned by the lascivious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), he languished in jail for years on fabricated charges while his wife and infant daughter became the judge's easy pickings. Now that he's returned to the aforementioned "great black pit" of working-class Victorian England to salvage his life, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, looking like some across-the-pond ancestor of Fight Club's Marla Singer), baker of "the worst pies in London." Todd needs revenge on the judge, Mrs. Lovett needs fresh meat for her pies--it's a small business merger made in heaven. When Todd slashes the air with his silver cutthroat razor and crows, "At last, my arm is complete again," it's easy to see why Burton was pegged for this project. Wasn't Edward Scissorhands gifted tonsorially, too?
While most directors, when presented with a musical project, take it as an opportunity to let their visual fancy run wild, Burton instead makes the uncharacteristically conservative decision to let Sondheim's scintillating rhymes do all the work while he indulges his previously tempered fetish for 3 billion shades of static drab. Is he constitutionally incapable of directing a musical? It sure appears that way when he decides to have Depp and Carter recite all their duets--and there are plenty of them--doing nothing more exciting than staring at each other in Todd's grimy garret. It's like watching an all-singing production of No Exit. Even the usually dependable Rickman, cast as the voluptuary judge in what should have been a couture fit of a role, is a little watered down. What's worse, the cinematography is so underlit and hueless that this critic at first suspected the projectionist hadn't turned the projector bulb up all the way. By the time the red, red krovvy starts flowing, it's a relief, not a shock-finally, something bright to look at for the stimulation-starved rods and cones in our retinas.
There is one other small bright spot, and that's Sacha Baron Cohen as Signor Pirelli, the Italian showman and hair-tonic peddler whom Todd challenges to a shave-off in the marketplace. Towering over the rest of the cast both in physical mass and screen-presence wattage, Cohen bursts onto the screen clad in bluebell-colored bullfighter silks, like an ostrich squeezed into peacock plumage, and trills his operatic dialogue with the tiniest, feather-light acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness flickering across his gigantic and expressive face. His molto bello theatrical Italian accent is all the more impressive when he switches midsentence to his character's authentic Cockney, but after only a few more lines of dialogue Todd brains him with a hot tea kettle. Then his remains get shoved in a steamer trunk, and that's the end of us seeing anything interesting for the next 50 minutes. At least a dozen victims bite the dust during Sweeney Todd's rampage, but the biggest massacre of all is perpetrated on the audience as they're slowly, torturously, and needlessly bored to death. Maybe Eli Roth should have his turn.