These days, most men go their entire lives without sitting down in the barber's chair for a shave. And it's a shame, because there's almost no better way for a dude to pamper himself than having a professional expertly remove the stubble with a straight razor. Sure, it's a scary proposition, but it wasn't long ago that most guys paid someone else to drag that blade across their jaws. Regardless, the number of men indulging in the practice is about to take a nosedive in light of Tim Burton's new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which stars a gothed-out Johnny Depp as Fleet Street's infamous singing barber, whose customers have a tendency to end up on the menu at the restaurant below his shop. Oh—yes, singing. Did I mention it's a musical?
Depp is Todd, returned to Victorian London after a 15-year absence and seeking vengeance on those who wronged him. You see, Sweeney Todd was once Benjamin Barker, a humble barber with a baby girl and a wife hot enough to catch the eye of Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who has Benjamin arrested and sent away.
But he comes back to town sporting a Marilyn Manson makeover and a thirst for blood. When he goes to his old lodgings on Fleet Street, he runs into Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), who runs the dismal meat-pie shop on the ground floor, and the two conspire to cook the judge's goose and rescue Barker's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) from his clutches.
But to get to the judge, Todd will first have to deal with a new rival, the Italian barber Pirelli, expertly played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Ali G and Borat fame. A difference of opinion leaves Pirelli dead, and therein lies the solution to the restaurateur's dilemma of how to get meat in a time of scarcity. So, the barber MacGyvers up his chair and begins slitting the throats of his customers and dumping their bodies into the cellar, where Mrs. Lovett grinds them into meat pies that sell like In-N-Out double-doubles.
The knock on Burton has always been that he doesn't know how to make his characters stand out from the amazing cartoonesque appearance of his pictures and become people his audiences can really care about. He's succeeded once in a while—Ed Wood, for instance, and parts of Edward Scissorhands (both of which starred Depp, natch). But he's unable to pull off the same trick in Sweeney Todd, though in this case it works to his advantage.
The film's production design is extraordinary, with old London a dark cesspool of smoke and sulfur, the perfect setting for Burton's bloody Grand Guignol. Both Depp and Bonham-Carter fit right into the film's look and feel, so even when the picture drags—and at times, during the musical numbers, it does drag—everything appears so sharp that you might not care.
The problem is that while Burton can slash a throat and grind up a body with the best of them, he doesn't always know what to do with his actors when they break into song, especially since neither of his leads are particularly talented singers. Sure, they can carry a tune, but they aren't going to blow the house down with Stephen Sondheim's words.
Depp broods through the entire affair but still shows himself the master of the raised eye and the evil smile, while Bonham-Carter keeps her finger down hard on the film's pulse—she provides the energy that keeps the story moving along, one carotid artery at a time. And for the most part, all is forgiven by the time the throat-cutting montage draws to a close. All told, Sweeney Todd is bloody, brutal, flawed and funny. Not the perfect crime, but a crime worth committing.