With Cyrano, Joe Wright Made the Most Conventional Musical of 2021

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With <i>Cyrano</i>, Joe Wright Made the Most Conventional Musical of 2021

Cyrano is a musical, the last of this year’s bumper crop, and it seems ideally suited for the style of director Joe Wright, which merges theatrical and cinematic sensibilities under the common goal of showing off. Wright, last seen dropping the ball on making a heavily stylized De Palma-style freakout despite his obvious skill set, has made it his business, sometimes self-consciously, to let the stuffiness out of period dramas, using tracking shots or moving sets or Keira Knightley as would-be release valves. There’s no reason that songs and production numbers couldn’t serve the same function in Wright’s re-envisioning of the original Edmond Rostand play.

Yet there’s something slightly, tastefully discordant about Cyrano more or less from the jump—sometimes pleasingly so, compared to the plastic bombast of so many stage musical adaptations. This one offers an odd mix of pervasive melancholia and swooning fairy-tale broadness, complete with a foppish, villainous duke played by Ben Mendelsohn. It also has a terrific and multifaceted Cyrano de Bergerac played by Peter Dinklage; rather than self-consciousness about his “ugly” oversized nose, this Cyrano is fighting the cruelty he receives as a dwarf. Hence his panache as a poet and a swordsman—though in his private telling, his “sole purpose” is loving Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a lifelong friend unaware of his affections.

Even if you haven’t seen the Rostand play or the Steve Martin comedy Roxanne or any of the other adaptations (including other musicals), the basic story is familiar from years of teen-comedy theft: Cyrano generously and foolishly supplies the handsome, tongue-tied Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) the beautiful words with which to woo the besotted Roxanne, pouring his own feelings into someone else’s courtship. The teen movies usually skip the part where both men eventually go off to war, continuing the charade beyond the more familiar scenarios like Cyrano feeding Christian lines as he calls up to Roxanne’s window.

In that balcony scene, Wright uses a split diopter on some shots to keep both Cyrano and Roxanne in focus; between this and Woman in the Window, he’s obviously keyed in to the technical trick du jour now that the epic tracking shot has been given a rest. Cyrano is, like most of Wright’s work, a pleasure to look at, even when the filmmakers labor to showcase their invention. Yet in the field of big, splashy productions having fun with their own pageantry, it becomes impossible to avoid thinking about how the more movies he makes, the more Wright seems like Baz Luhrmann cursed with “good” (which is to say, middlebrow) tastes. (In retrospect, this should have been obvious even before the pirates of the delightfully misbegotten Pan crooned a few bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like lecherous old men at the Moulin Rouge.)

Luhrmann merges show-offy cinematic technique and outré theatricality with a palpable sense of joy; Wright often does it with a more dutiful air—or maybe it just feels that way because so much of Cyrano feels a little mopey. Dinklage does soulful work; it’s no minor feat to make his character’s withholding look poignant rather than self-pitying, nor to make some of Cyrano’s more pedestrian and/or expositional lines sound vaguely poetic. But Wright has trouble achieving the kind of dizzying highs that should complement the story’s tragic lows. That extends to the musical numbers, which often feel like the actors are attempting to sing along with an unceasing piano score rather than bursting into full, expressive song.

Not having much foreknowledge of the 2018 stage musical this film is based on, it took me most of the running time to figure out what, specifically, these songs sounds like: Weird covers of indie rock mainstays the National. Key members of that band—Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Matthew Berninger, along with the band’s non-performing lyricist Carin Besser—wrote the songs, and the band’s style is an odd match for other singers. The sound really clicks into place late in the film, in the heartbreaking number “Wherever I Fall,” with various soldiers singing the contents of their final letters home. There are other moments, too; it can be a relief to watch a musical where everything isn’t goosed into overproduction, and Bennett has a nice sense of defiant yearning on “Someone To Say.” Everyone does a good job and the movie still doesn’t really linger. Cyrano moves along fleetly without ever fully lifting off, grounded by its skillful refinements. By an unlikely confluence of Spielberg’s talent, Jon M. Chu’s freshness, Annette’s weirdness and Evan Hansen’s toxic awkwardness, Wright has accidentally made the most conventional musical of the year.

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Erica Schmidt
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Bashir Salahuddin
Release Date: December 17, 2021

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.