Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) has a way of saving a movie. I would’ve found Talladega Nights insufferable without his presence. He didn’t really belong in that film, but he was so crazily out of place that he ended up crazily part of the NASCAR world. In Sweeney Todd, he similarly sticks out like a very tall and slender sore thumb, and he uses his eye-grabbing physicality and bottomless energy to elevate what was for the first half hour a lifelessly dreary flat tire.
It is telling though – both of the movie and of its director Tim Burton – that Cohen makes his biggest impact not by his entrance, not by his scene munching bravado, but by his exit – grisly as it is. Right from the get-go during the opening titles, Burton makes clear what he considers the most interesting element of Sweeney Todd by showing us a vivid red trail of spilled animated blood dripping and running its way through the machinery of Victorian England. It is Burton in vintage form. It connects to his roots as a Disney animator too dark and twisted to remain a Disney animator for long. Unfortunately, as soon as the titles end, so does Burton’s passion, his very interest in the story he is telling.
As we are shown a barber (Johnny Depp) reduced to an empty shell by having his wife and daughter ripped away by the lust of another man, I had that going through the motions feeling. As the barber sets up shop above the establishment of the worst baker to ever to slap together a pie on a filthy kitchen table (Helena Bonham-Carter), I had that zombie feeling of everyone including Burton walking about in a trance. (The characters I’ll allow – it’s actually kind of the point – but not the movie’s director.) I was ready to write Sweeney Todd off as one of Burton’s worst films and add it to my mound of evidence proving his weaknesses after the over-bloated catastrophes that were Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Then it happened. With the whip of a straight razor and the spurt of blood, Cohen’s character is dispatched from the story and everyone involved, especially Burton, is awakened like a school of sharks getting a sudden whiff of nearby lunch. Suddenly, my yawns turned to wicked laughs as the demon barber began dispatching victims and sending them tumbling through a trap door to the basement below, sometimes landing head-first with a bounce, a delightful bit of gruesome slapstick. Now, audience and director alike are having fun and everything about the movie turns from sleepy to giddy. Burton even pulls rabbits from his hat with a fantasy sequence reminiscent of his best work.
Somehow, all it took was a splash of red and the fun of the opening credits was back. This was the most I’ve enjoyed a Burton film since the good old days of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (another barber movie). Clearly, Burton was having a great time as well, something always infectious.
A quick comment or two about the music: I saw the movie with my sister-in-law, a classically trained operatic singer, and I commented that I didn’t like the music because I couldn’t recall a single tune. Her comeback was that Sondheim wasn’t going for a hit parade. He was going for an overall piece. And I can appreciate that. It is like my constant lament over the death of music albums in this age of iPods and mp3s. She them offered a comment more damning than mine. “Sweeney Todd is usually performed by classically trained singers who have the skill to bring the lyrics to vivid life. Here, giving the vocals to actors – Depp, Bonham-Carter, etc. – fails completely. Their singing was flat and lifeless.”
There they are again: “flat” and “lifeless.” It’s a good thing for the blood.