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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.27.07





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Cut to the Chase

Not enough bloody fun

BY MOLLY TEMPLETON

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET: Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John Logan, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Production design, Dante Ferretti. Cinematography, Dariusz Wolski. Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen. Dreamworks, 2007. R. 117 minutes.

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) and his little friend

There's certainly plenty to love about a musical about murder and cannibalism. After all, so many musicals are just so damn happy; there's always something wonderful going on, like a parade or a romance or something. Sweeney Todd isn't the only musical to take on a dark theme, but there's nonetheless something downright delicious about the relish Todd, at least in the hands of Tim Burton, shows for spurting blood, cockroaches, dirty streets and underhanded dealings. The film's credits, set to an orchestral version of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," have a wonderfully ominous, suggestive tone, but the film, alas, can't seem to keep it up.

Todd is a pretty straightforward revenge tale, which Johnny Depp's title character, a barber, spells out for his listeners early on: A corrupt, lustful judge set up Todd — then called Benjamin Barker — in order to swoop in on his beautiful wife and child. After years spent in a penal colony, Parker-turned-Todd has returned to London, ready to even the score. For friends, he's got a naïve seaman named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) and the indescribably bad cook Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), whose ability to make the best of a bad situation comes in wildly handy when Todd takes out the first man to remember who the gloomy barber used to be.

Todd is a man obsessed, so it's not a surprise that his character is rather one-note: Revenge! Murder! Razors! Depp, though, has a touch too much of old Edward Scissorhands about his bearing, particularly as he glowers his way through Mrs. Lovett's "By the Sea," in which she, mooning over Todd, envisions a happy life in the future (and what lovely visions Burton and his designers give her). Depp's rumble of a singing voice suits his character, as Bonham Carter's reedy, inconsistent tones suit Mrs. Lovett (though her voice sometimes gets lost in the mix during the busy "The Worst Pies in London"). Alan Rickman, playing the loathsome Judge Turpin, steals his every scene, conveying (as he always does) a world of scorn with the twitch of an eyebrow. And Timothy Spall clearly delights in chewing on his lines as the corrupt Beadle Bamford. But Sweeney Todd neither gives us enough reason to care about these characters nor enough grisly glee to simply enjoy the macabre story for what it is — at least, not very often. Todd and Mrs. Lovett's fantastically misanthropic little ditty about how London might become literally a man eat man world, which neatly encompasses some of the film's themes, is a clever joy, but it doesn't come until about halfway through the film (prior to that, Sacha Baron Cohen has a juicy, tiny part as a rival barber), which takes its time building atmosphere, if little else.

The endless spurting blood, the occasional giddily dark montage: These are the film's winning bits. They just don't carry it through the half-hearted snippets of melody, the thin characterizations or the endless gloom — which, dark as it is, seems all surface darkness, glossy and grim but without a heart hiding somewhere, pumping the shiny, paintlike blood. Consistently dark but inconsistent about the source of that darkness, Sweeney Todd is a marvel of gloriously bleak sets, stunning costumes and effective lighting, but it can only offer so many squirming groans and laughs, so many moments at which you know it's not all going to end well, before it slinks to its maudlin, bloody close.