As even those of us who love them know, musicals are inherently silly. They can be lots of other things, too, of course: moving, hilarious, bold, clunky, glorious, batshit crazy. (Moulin Rouge! manages to be all those things.) But by nature, the notion of characters leaving the bounds of everyday behavior to burst into song – or, in the cases of particularly misérable French people and cats, singing non-stop – is goofy, and can be especially alienating on screen. In the theatre, at the end of a musical number, you can ward off potential discomfort by applauding the performance. At the movies, unless it's the finale to Jennifer Hudson's show-stopper from Dreamgirls, a song's climax is generally met with awkward silence – the kind that sweeps through an auditorium after everyone has just endured a trailer that's too lame to get excited about yet too unremarkable to vocally diss.
In his Cyrano de Bergerac adaptation simply titled Cyrano, director Joe Wright demonstrates how to do a screen musical appropriately, which isn't quite the same as doing one transcendently. The film doesn't boast the passion or audacity of Spielberg's West Side Story remake or most of Lin-Manuel Miranda's tick … tick … Boom!, and I'd argue that only two or three numbers here really work. (Wright's movie is based on the 2018 stage production written by Erica Schmidt, whose husband Peter Dinklage plays its title character, with lyrics by Carin Besser and Matt Berninger and the score by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner – the latter three all members of the rock outfit the National.) Yet Cyrano's director has wisely crafted his release so that its scenes of conversation and action have the same heightened, mildly make-believe quality as its songs and occasional dances, and the tunes don't tend to end so much as naturally segue; you aren't distracted with thoughts of “Here comes another musical number ...” given that the whole movie feels like one big musical number. What Wright's film lacks in excitement is largely made up for in consistency of tone, and that would be a backhanded compliment at best if the tone weren't so consistently sincere, playful, touching, and romantic.
Schmidt, meanwhile, earns immediate points for ingenuity, as her decision to have de Bergerac portrayed by a (brilliant) diminutive actor is nothing less than inspired. In Edmond Rostand's 1897 play and its many stage and screen incarnations, Cyrano is an admired soldier and fierce wit whose comically pronounced nose makes him, he believes, an impossible match for the beautiful Roxanne (played in Wright's film by Haley Bennett). A longtime friend whom Cyrano secretly loves – his ardor known only to battlefield ally Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) – Roxanne instead falls head over heels for Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a dashing new recruit who's smitten in return, but lacks the poetic soul necessary to woo her. If you've seen previous Cyranos ranging from José Ferrer's to Steve Martin's, you know what happens next: our hero agrees to ghostwrite Christian's romantic correspondence; Cyrano, unseen, winds up literally speaking for his fellow soldier; events get infinitely more complicated and don't end happily for anyone. (Well, in Martin's 1987 Roxanne they do.) Rostand's tragic love story has endured for more than 100 years because material this juicy and satisfying is almost impossible to screw up. In Wright's hands, it doesn't get screwed up. In Dinklage's, it plays about as beautifully as you could hope.
One of Rostand's chief masterstrokes was to make Cyrano's fear of rejection almost entirely self-motivated, because even though others may scoff at his “abnormality” (and, expert swordsman that he is, woe to those who do), Roxanne unfailingly adores her friend, as do Le Bret and many of the French locals; Cyrano is hardly a community pariah. And while his dwarfism, here, proves a sensational substitute for the physical challenge Rostand imagined, the idea of Cyrano's biggest romantic obstacle being himself is exacerbated in the casting, because seriously: Who doesn't love Peter Dinklage? Four foot five or not, he's handsome, funny, intelligent, confident – the ideal leading man. He's also remarkably expressive, and your heart breaks a little whenever Dinklage's Cyrano, following the momentary high of some personal triumph, recedes into doubt and anguish. He's been a significant film and TV presence for 20 years, and I'm not sure Dinklage has ever been more varied, or more devastating, than he is in the sequence that finds Roxanne revealing her love for Christian. Watching Dinklage's facial features morph from elated (She loves me!) to confused (Ummm … she is still talking about me, right …?) to annihilated (Oh … I see …) – all while Cyrano attempts a facade of nonchalant “just pals” intimacy – is a veritable master class in the art of revealing subtext through active listening.
It's always a surprise to return to any rendition of Cyrano de Bergerac and remember how few major characters there actually are. But all of them, in Wright's retelling, are wonderful: Bennett's Roxanne, whose ethereal romanticism complements her down-to-earth decency; Harrison's well-meaning simpleton Christian, who's terrifically sweet, frequently riotous, and unexpectedly sensitive; Salahuddin's Le Bret, adding soulful vigor to traditional sounding-board duties; Ben Mendelsohn's louche, malevolent commander De Guiche, a cruel figure who isn't cartoonish. (This is one of Mendelsohn's few roles that has made advantageous use of his natural lisp.) Add the arresting 19th-century period design and deservedly Oscar-nominated costuming by Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran – love those humanized sheep in the early tavern-theatre scene! – and Wright's Cyrano is a nearly consistent pleasure, solidly (if not terribly imaginatively) produced and effortlessly engaging. If only this musical's music made a similar impact.
To be fair, the songs aren't bad even when they're unmemorable, and Bennett and Harrison are topnotch vocalists, and the only times I recall wincing at the musical numbers came when Wright's staging was teetering perilously close to camp. That happened more often that I wanted, though. The “Every Letter” montage in which Roxanne all but made love to Christian/Cyrano's correspondence on her four-poster bed just barely avoided tastelessness, and while Christian's reprise of the “Someone to Say” refrain was lovely, I'd suggest that its romantic earnestness might have been sli-i-ightly undermined by the sight of puffy-shirted and powder-wigged soldiers performing a series of arabesques and pas de deux and hoisting one another in the air. Dinklage, meanwhile, can carry a tune just fine, but I'll admit that my eyebrow may have unconsciously raised and my jaw may have unconsciously dropped the first time he launched into one of Cyrano's gravelly solos. Was it my imagination, or for the purposes of a few numbers, did Dinklage actually employ a Southern drawl?
Still, at least the songs don't come off as interruptions, and one of them – an ensemble composition titled “Wherever I Fall” – is close to sublime. With its chorus sung by an entire battalion and its verses successively performed by three soldiers on the eve of certain death in battle, two of them writing farewell letters to lovers and one writing to a parent, this tune is an absolute gut-wrencher, and the one time in the film that the emotion of the music legitimately matches the emotion of the narrative. (Even Rostand's famously tragic finale is a more dry-eyed affair than “Wherever I Fall.”) I wish Cyrano had more numbers like it. But I'm also delighted – and relieved – with the Cyrano we got, a musical romance so heartfelt that it gives neither its actors nor its audience any reason to feel embarrassed.
Whatever else there is to say about the film, I have to give director B.J. McDonnell's Studio 666 credit for perhaps the most promising (and, it turns out, accurate) four-word synopsis I've heard in years: “Foo Fighters splatter comedy.” That alone should tell you whether or not you want to see it. If you're a fan of Dave Grohl and company and/or drive-in horror flicks of the '70s, you probably will want to see it, and should – though I'd suggest maybe waiting until you're at home with friends, and you're high, and it's late, and there's really nothing better to do. As opposed to this ideal viewing scenario, however, I caught McDonnell's unapologetically tacky offering under less optimal conditions, as I was sober in the middle of the afternoon and surrounded by strangers. It was still a pretty good time.
A movie best entered with low expectations – preferably zero expectations – so there's no possible way to be disappointed, Studio 666 sends Grohl and his bandmates to a rambling mansion in Encino, California, to record the Foo Fighters' tenth album, which they do unaware that supernatural forces have invaded the space and are prepared to make gooey mincemeat out of any and all visitors. There's more to it than that, and the only times in which this low-budget gore-fest truly fails are when it bothers to take its preposterous plot seriously – which, weirdly, it does for nearly the entire last half-hour of its overlong 105 minutes. Yet beginning with the opening credits that are set in Halloween typeface and accompanied by a sinister score partly composed by John Carpenter himself, there's so much that's alternately reverential and flat-out ridiculous here that even the (figurative) dead spots are kind of breezy. A friend who hadn't yet seen the movie quipped that it sounded like a modern update on an old episode of The Monkees, and barring the viscera and constant barrage of F bombs, that's precisely what it is: all blithe, zippy wisecracks and occasional music cues, albeit with the occasional severed head or demonstration of cannibalism. Every so often, there's also some legitimate wit (a possessed Grohl demands that his band's impending magnum opus be recorded in the key of L sharp), but wit in a work this proudly, joyously stupid is really just wasting its time.
How are the Foo Fighters, you may ask, in terms of big-screen presence? To paraphrase the adage: As actors, they're terrific musicians. But even the guys' amateurishness is friendly and refreshing, and you can have fun deciding who among the sextet is the most confident (definitely Grohl), and who's the shakiest (that's probably Pat Smear), and who's having the best time entertaining himself (Rami Jaffee, no question). While fellow Fighters Nate Mendel and Chris Shiflett exude some B-movie-character-actor appeal, Taylor Hawkins is unexpectedly awfully winning, and there are amusing brief roles for Jeff Garlin and Whitney Cummings and Will Forte. Plus, if you're into this sort of thing (and I very much am), the acts of violence on display are hysterically, outrageously violent. Like most horror comedies, Studio 666, as a whole, is neither sufficiently funny (which it sometimes is) nor sufficiently scary (which it never is). But I could easily imagine watching it again as a mindless time killer just for Cummings' slow vanish behind a wooden fence, or the gruesome execution performed with a cymbal, or Grohl instinctively shuddering when Forte's delivery man tells him the Foo Fighters are his second-favorite band “right after Coldplay.” As always, the devil's in the details.