What makes Jackman such an astonishment is that he’s not afraid to show you all the work. The live singing elevates the sense of hardship. Jackman’s a star whose charisma the movies have wasted but musical theater and award shows have kept in business. Hooper often puts the camera up close to Jackman, looking down upon him. What the actor reveals as he spits and weeps and strains to perform, say, “What Have I Done?” or “Who Am I?” is a kind of reverse showmanship. The charisma’s been stripped to the bone, and it’s a thrilling confirmation of the other kind of star Jackman is. Come the second half, he’s just as good, but there’s nowhere for all the anguish to go. His hair’s gone big. He’s breeches and suspenders. It’s like watching “Little House on the Prairie”-era Michael Landon tackle a supermusical.
After 2½ hours, the movie’s become a bowl of trail mix — you’re picking out the nuts you don’t like and hoping the next bite doesn’t contain any craisins. All the carefully crafted misérables turns into a pile of miz. Through it all the person who breaks your heart in scene after scene is Crowe. Not because he’s good. It’s quite the opposite problem. Again, this is a sung-through musical, which means he might speak two words the entire film. He doesn’t sing here so much as carry tunes — across the desert, in his bare feet. This strong virile actor is giving the songs everything he has yet still sounds like one of the orphans in “Oliver.” The entire performance is like a car that won’t turn over. His bravery’s commendable. But there’s nothing miz about him, just misérable.