Is it too much to ask for someone who can both act and sing exceptionally well? Apparently so. In last year’s The Greatest Showman, Rebecca Ferguson portrayed opera singer Jenny Lind. But while it looked like she was the one singing “Never Enough,” it was actually Loren Allred’s voice that people heard while Ferguson lip-synced. As for the song itself, it sounded less like opera and more like a '90s pop ballad, but that’s beside the point. The reason I bring this up is because Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Ann Patchett’s bestselling book, Bel Canto, does the same exact thing with Julianne Moore and Renèe Fleming. Moore is the one we see acting out the part of opera singer Roxanne Coss, but it’s Fleming’s voice we hear during the singing moments. The only difference between the two films is, in the trailer for Bel Canto, it actually acknowledges that Moore lip-syncs to Fleming’s vocals. Points for, at least, not being secretive about it.
For as great of an actress as Moore can be, her lip-syncing does her no service. She can’t quite match the power of Fleming’s vocals, and the moments where her character has to perform come off as awkward and flat. It also doesn’t help that we don’t get much chemistry between her and Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), the wealthy industrialist for whom she is performing at his private birthday party. Their relationship sparks while they and the other people in attendance are taken hostage by guerilla rebels seeking the release of their imprisoned colleagues. She’s twice divorced, while he’s still married. Oh, the scandal! And yet not a moment of it is believable.
Both Moore and Watanabe are terrific actors, and there are some key moments in which they both do exceptional work in the film. But their romance never blossoms onscreen. It’s just present amongst a barrage of other ridiculous moments that unfold throughout.
Weitz introduces the guerilla rebels as horrifying, vicious people, but doesn’t keep them that way. During the hostage situation, the partygoers are held captive for a month. The hostages enjoy playing soccer with the rebels. A translator (Ryo Case) falls in love with one of the rebels while teaching her Spanish and English. Roxanne teaches one of the rebels how to sing opera.
None of the situations described above are jokes. These instances actually take place in the movie. Weitz tries to make the viewer feel more sympathetic toward the rebels than fear them. Don’t worry; there are some moments of terror and fear. Some scenes involve a Red Cross worker (Sebastian Koch) trying to negotiate with the rebels, which doesn’t always have the best results.
The tension is hardly present though. The attempts at making the villains seem not as bad as everyone thinks tend to take precedence, and it comes across as hokey.
While the rich are being held hostage by rebels, it’s really the government that seems to be the true enemy of Bel Canto. There’s a scene in which the water is shut off as a means of negotiations. The rebels realize that they can’t live without water, and neither can the hostages. How do they get the government to turn the water back on? By having Roxanne sing them a song.
Yes, her voice is lovely, but I doubt it’s actually enough to overturn someone’s decision during a hostage situation. To be clear, I’m not a fan of big government control either, but I also think that a cartoonish decision such as that wouldn’t actually work.
Bel Canto doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding of where it wants to go and how it wants its audience to perceive its characters. At first, it seems like the rebels are the bad guys. Then the government becomes the bad guys, and we’re supposed to sympathize with the rebels. Yet it rushes through so many underdeveloped relationships and so many absurd scenes that we’re left to question how it got greenlit in the first place.
Bel Canto releases to theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 14.