Miramax has put its new French tearjerker ''The Chorus (Les Choristes)" through more name changes than Sean Combs. But now that the movie is an Academy Award nominee, it all seems to have paid off. Of course, the studio probably should have just titled the thing ''You've Wept, Now Where's Our Oscar?" and called it a day.
The instant kindly old Pepinot (Didier Flamand) pops up on the doorstep of aged conductor Morhange (Jacques Perrin), enters his home, and produces a class photograph from their boyhoods, it's clear that nostalgia awaits. While the ''oooh"-ing, ''aaah"-ing musical score swells, that photo and the teacher's diary that accompanies it take us back to 1949, to Fond de l'Etang, the sort of correctional facility the French government set up to deal with children who were abandoned, orphaned, or left disturbed by World War II.
Fond de l'Etang is particularly battered-looking. Its name means ''rock bottom," more or less, and its students range from bad to worst, but their faces run the gamut of adorability.
There is young Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), a cherub if ever there was one, clinging to the iron gate, waiting for parents who will never come. This is an ideal position from which to see the school's comings and goings. And he's there when the new instructor, Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), arrives. For some reason Mathieu has given up on music, vowing never to practice it again, but winds up changing his mind anyway. You know: for the kids.
Naturally, he has no idea what he's in for. The tots and young men at Fond de l'Etang smoke, curse, and play the sorts of injurious pranks on the minuscule staff that make Hollywood depictions of public schools look like Phillips Exeter. But the director, co-writer, and composer Christophe Barratier, in his film debut, makes sure that every ounce of danger (one faculty member almost loses an eye, another loses his patience and quits) is tempered with scenes of typical school antics. For instance, there's the horseplay and deafening pandemonium that, in movies anyway, new teachers always stumble into on the first day.
Welcome, Monsieur Mathieu, to the jungle. It's only a matter of time until he's cutting back the vines and taming these little urchins through song. But he'll have to overcome the hostilities of Rachin (FranÃ§ois Berleand), the warden -- I mean, headmaster -- who favors the choir one minute and tries to disband it the next. But Mathieu is patient and committed, making the sullen young Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) his soloist and Pepinot his assistant and arranging ''underground" rehearsals in the dormitory. (The kids fall for the choir business with surprisingly little resistance.)
I wanted to be moved by all this. But the movie makes everything too easy. There are some scenes, like the final one, that should have left me bawling. But the film earns no such response. And unlike some of the little stars of this movie, I can't cry on cue.
The crime of ''The Chorus" isn't that it's corny. (I like corny.) It's that its corniness seems programmed. The students have thick skins, and the school bully (Gregory Gatignol) is a redheaded monster, but the screenplay, by Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval, tries too hard to turn miserable situations cute.
Why have Mathieu act a bumbling fool when Morhange's pretty, overworked mother (Marie Bunel) appears for visits? Why force Berleand's headmaster to be such a naysaying villain? OK: because he makes Mathieu look more heroic. But Barratier doesn't deepen the movie's premise, relying instead on the kids' faces, Jugnot's likable performance, and a last-minute mishap to win over viewers.
''Who can say no to a story about a school of devilish boys who sing like angels?" the director of ''The Chorus" seems to ask. Some filmgoers might mist up at the mere thought of another film about a schoolteacher who circumvents the system and saves children from themselves. But anyone in such desperate need of a good cry should stay home and chop an onion.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.