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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

Whatever Luhrmann wants, I don't get



Moulin Rouge

Rating: * *
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Australian director Baz Luhrmann seems to fancy himself as The Mother of All Postmodernists. For those of you who didn't catch that from his last movie, "Romeo + Juliet," there's no avoiding it in his latest. "Moulin Rouge" is a work of pure artifice, a vast glimmering pastiche of ironic and iconic cultural quotes, steals and cliches. As such, I'll give Luhrmann the review he so richly deserves . . .

News photo
Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in "Moulin Rouge."

"Moulin Rouge" is "La Boheme" produced by Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pearl Harbor," "Con Air"). Stop for a moment and really try to imagine all that entails. This is a musical that envisions the romantic heights of bohemian decadence at the famed Parisian nightclub, circa 1900, as a cross between the glitzy excesses of Studio 54 and a tacky Las Vegas "theme" hotel. The choreography is Busby Berkeley meets Bollywood, while the songs sound like Andrew Lloyd Webber singing along to his fave "Rave Anthems Vol. 11" CD, while his irate neighbors try to break down the door. Nicole Kidman comes across as mid-'80s Madonna trying to play Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel," John Leguizamo plays Toulouse Lautrec as Jiminy Cricket on speed, while Ewan McGregor, um, well, he hits the high notes.

Sometimes, like just now, comparisons fail me and I'd rather think of what something is rather than what it's like. Not Luhrmann, the human sampler, who's obviously never met an idea he wouldn't lift. "Moulin Rouge" plays like a two-hour bout of deja vu, a smug and soulless romp through a pomo house of mirrors.

Look no further than the music to see what's wrong. Try the scene in which penniless writer Christian (McGregor) seeks to serenade the priceless showgirl Satine (Kidman) whom he has fallen for. Alas, the Moulin Rouge's manager, Zidler (Jim Broadbent), has promised Satine to the caddish Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) in exchange for his financial backing of the nightclub. Christian knows this, but naively feels that love can conquer all obstacles, so he throws his arms wide, opens his mouth wider, and sings: "All you need is love . . . love is a many splendored thing . . . love is like oxygen . . . I was made for lovin' you, baby . . . in the name of lo-ooo-ove . . ." And -- wait for it -- "I will always lo-ove you-ou-ou!"

Now at this point Luhrmann expects us -- as he also does in an opening medley that mixes La Belle's disco, Nirvana's grunge (as sung by Marilyn Manson) and Fatboy Slim (gone diva via Christine Aguilera) -- to sit back and admire his clever-clever pastiche. But by the time Christian gets to "you think people would have had enough of silly love songs . . ." you'll feel like screaming "YES! PLEASE STOP! JUST STOP!"

It's a brazenly show-offy device that calls attention to itself, while also being so cut-up and fragmented that it simply fails to work as music. Indeed, this cut-up excess extends to the camerawork -- it seems Luhrmann can barely let more than a second elapse without making another cut. Combined with the pounding, overloaded train-wreck of a soundtrack, this makes for a truly draining experience. Just when you want to sink into the absinthe-heavy ambience of the Moulin Rouge and linger on the dancers' moves, the camera throws you around for another spin cycle.

As for Luhrmann's endless quoting -- both visual and musical -- it's an approach that's at odds with what is theoretically the film's main objective: to create a heartfelt and moving romance. You can almost glimpse what he's aiming for, namely attaining a critical mass of cliches in order to create a kind of pop culture ur-myth. But it only echoes the failure of another recent postmodern musical, Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark." In both films, the artificiality and self-referential irony distance us from the proceedings at the very moment we're supposed to be passionately embracing it. As a parody of Hollywood musicals, this might have worked, but naivete and irony are like oil and water -- they just don't mix.

At least, not for this critic. As with "Dancer in the Dark," no doubt there will be people who are swept off their feet by Luhrmann's roller-coaster ride, who succumb to his brazen manipulations. For every holdout like myself who loathes this as crass and maudlin, there will be another who enjoys it as campy kitsch and queeny melodrama. I will give it this much: Visually, it is stunning, with bold and vibrant use of color and lighting, and incredibly ornate costumes and set design, all of which is nearly enough to pull the film into the fairy-tale feel it hopes to achieve.

But a faux-Latin-accented tango version of The Police's "Roxanne," set to about a zillion camera cuts and climaxing in a deafening row of people screaming and howling at the moon, now that will bring you down to earth pretty damn quickly. The opulent sets, the baroque ornamentation, it's all part of the film's relentless assault, the belief that a musical must be as kinetic as "Armageddon." As I said before, think Jerry Bruckheimer. Think headache.

Where Luhrmann's film needs to seduce us, it can only get in our face and -- like a bad drunk -- bellow, "Love me, love me, love me!" In the end, there's not one honest, heartfelt moment in this entire tarty, phony valentine. So, to Baz, I can only say, "Love to love ya, baby, but, whoa-oh-oh, tainted love."



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