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IN SHORT: All-Singing. All-Dancing. All-most a story. [Rated PG-13 for sexual content. 130 minutes]
Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is your typical classical-style musical. A lot of singing. Almost as much dancing. A story so slim it is almost invisible, but just enough to hang its singing and dancing on. Classical musicals, the ones that were hits, became hits because the songs were good enough that audiences walked out of the theater humming them. In this particular case, Lurhmann has chosen to go with big rock hits as his score: songs by Elton John, Madonna, the Police, Labelle and David Bowie, to name a few. As well, bits and pieces of lyrics from various songs by Sweet and the Beatles (etc etc etc), are used as dialogue. That "dialogue" comes up out of the blue and catches you by surprise, always good for a laugh. That being the case, the first hour of Moulin Rouge is a lot of fun, if you don't pay attention to little details like the lack of story or plot or reason for being. It's all downhill from there.
That first hour is one big visual firework, from a repeating zoom over a reconstructed turn of the last century Paris to the stop and drop your jaw production effects, costuming and set design. What little there is of a story concerns a country kid, Christian (Ewan McGregor) in the big city where he dreams of a career as a writer. On his first night in town, a resident of l'Hotel Blanche a narcoleptic Argentinean (Jacek Koman) falls through his ceiling, bringing about an introduction to the writer Toulouse-Lautrec(John Leguizamo) and a band of actors preparing a show proposal -- the "Spectacular Spectacular" -- for the Moulin Rouge nightspot, its Master of Ceremonies Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and superstar talent Satine (Nicole Kidman). With only a day to prepare for their presentation, the novice writer is drafted into the group.
Before you go running to your email programs, the real life Toulouse-Lautrec was a painter, and some of his advertising posters for the Moulin Rouge are prominently hung on the walls of Zidler's office. Why Luhrmann and Pearce chose to introduce him as a writer is a mystery to me. It may have a basis in fact but so little of this movie seems based in any kind of fact, we don't see the point or the need to screw with history. The dancer/hookers are nicknamed the "Diamond Dogs," by the way and Kidman's character is a can-can dancer, though she doesn't can-can at any time in the movie. Those expecting historical fact or a remake of a movie made in 1952 should look elsewhere.
For all of the Moulin Rouge's reputation as a rowdy, rudest place in town kind of night joint, this creative effort has almost no sex and barely a hint of any kind of double entendre. Kidman's character is a courtesan, which means she's better looking and more expensive than the shriveled up old hags working the streets of the Montmartre district outside the M.R. Her aim in life is to land a sugar daddy who will finance her career and make her a "real actress". In this film he is The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and has enough money to finance a transformation of the club from dance hall and bordello front to a fully electrified professional theater. If Satine can seduce the man and his money, well, the staff of the Moulin Rouge are damned well gonna party like it's Eighteen Ninety-Nine.
Moulin Rouge kicks off with a ten to fifteen minute long music video featuring Kidman doing Marilyn singing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" with additional lyrics by Madonna ("Material Girl"). Set to woo "the Duke" -- she mistakenly picks up Christian and fakes the Big O as he recites his poetry to her, all lyrics by Bernie Taupin which will repeat endlessly as the coda to every musical number in the first hour of the movie. If I ever hear "Your Song" again, I will vomit.
Luhrmann has delivered one heaping helping of cotton eye-candy. The sets and costumes and designs are spectacular, as befitting the 99 percent of his attention that was paid to it. His one instruction to every single one of his acting staff seems to be "OVERACT!!!!!!!!!" which they do to the nth degree. The grand in-joke that is Moulin Rouge requires a great knowledge of rock 'n' roll to catch all the references. Once you do, the sheer stupidity of usage is very funny.
But an hour in someone decides that there should be a minimum effort at making a story. Annoying repetitions of "Your Song" are dumped for annoying repetitions of something called "Come What May" (sic - we don't recognize it) and a lame love story in which Satine comes to the realization that she'd rather be poor than be a whore. Her big secret, all characters must have a big secret, has been kept from her (but not the audience) by Zidler. The freneticism of Luhrmann's work sucks the tragedy out of it.
The Best Moments of the film belong to Broadbent and Koman, the former vamping an all male rendition of "Like A Virgin"and the latter staging a Police song as part of the musical Spectacular financed by the Duke. It is the only belly laugh in the second half and we won't spill it. If nothing else, this one joke only shows that Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce didn't go far enough. If they had doubled up on the number of in-joke song references, the resulting laughs coupled with the production design might have been enough.
If you have no expectation whatsoever, pretty pictures (and Ms. Kidman gets lots of them. We assume McGregor is the equivalent for those who like men), flashing lights and vaudeville -- bad jokes, double entendre, flashpots and bad acting all laid on with incredibly broad strokes -- may be enough.
But not for us.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Moulin Rouge, he would have paid . . .
Moulin Rouge fits in that category of bad movies with great visuals that won't look so great on a nineteen inch screen. If it means you wait six weeks for the second run theaters to get this clunker, so be it.
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