Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is being trumpeted by its creator as not merely a musical but, indeed, the Second Coming of the musical. Luhrmann is not a shy auteur; his previous film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and set in a kind of alternative-rock-video Miami Beach, was titled William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, but although the Bard’s words were bandied about, it might more accurately have been called Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I spent the entire movie fighting off the youth-pandering psychedelia in a vain attempt to locate the language, the performances. In Moulin Rouge, which is set in the Montmartre section of fin-de-siècle Paris, Luhrmann is once again in attack mode: He may think he’s resuscitating the musical genre, but it’s more like he’s stomping it.
Christian (Ewan McGregor) is the doomed poet who narrates his sad, Camille-like tale of how he lost the love of the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the celebrated dance hall Moulin Rouge. We first see Satine descend from the hall’s ceiling by trapeze as she proceeds to wow the ravenous crowd with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl.” The tone is set: flagrant neo-kitsch. And this is one of the film’s milder episodes. Luhrmann is a student of Busby Berkeley at his most high-fructose as well as the tutti-frutti tradition of Bombay musicals, with their berserk wriggling and instantaneous breaking-into-song. He makes one long for the relative sedateness of the Ken Russell who made Tommy. Luhrmann hauls in everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to “Nature Boy” to “Roxanne” to LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” and the songs tend to segue into one another, medley-style. It’s like being trapped inside a fever dream of Oscar-night production numbers.
Although McGregor and Kidman do their own singing, they seem vaguely disembodied when they warble – not so much because of technical difficulties but because the emotions don’t seem to be emanating from the person. Christian and Satine are meant to be pop archetypes, and so is everybody else in the movie, including Jim Broadbent, bobbing about in an inflated suit as the nightclub’s impresario, Harold Zidler, and Richard Roxburgh’s Duke, with his twitchy mustache and his penny-dreadful designs on Satine. John Leguizamo plays Toulouse-Lautrec, sans paintbrush, as the Elmer Fudd- sounding ringleader of a gaggle of bohos. None of these characters resonates even as an archetype because Luhrmann is too busy trying to ram them down our throats. Fellini at his most orgiastic never gave us so many lurid close-ups of grease-painted cavorters and plug-uglies. And this is a movie that pretends to be making some kind of fashion statement! Even Nicole Kidman has a fright-night pallor: dark-rimmed eyes, fire-truck-red lips, bone-white complexion – all this before she gets consumption.
Luhrmann can’t be criticized for not achieving what he set out to do. Moulin Rouge has the awful completeness of a fully realized bum vision. How could anybody who seriously wanted to revive the movie musical be so tone-deaf to the reasons why we love musicals in the first place? His movie is reminiscent of those bygone behemoth attempts to revive silent slapstick comedy, such as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, in which an overload of antics replaced inspiration. Moulin Rouge references just about every splashy forties musical ever made, plus quite a few others, but what’s missing is the simplicity of spirit that gave the best musicals their transcendence. There’s been a lot of blather over the years about how the movie musical is a dead genre, deader than the Western or the private-eye picture. We are supposed to be a culture that has lost its innocence; we can no longer sanction watching people suddenly break into heartfelt song. And meanwhile, music videos are the lifeblood of MTV, and on Broadway, The Producers is beginning to dwarf Fort Knox. (It will probably come full circle and end up as a movie.) Two of the greatest musicals ever filmed, Yentl and Pennies From Heaven, came out in the eighties, which is not exactly the Ice Age. If not much has been done in the movies since then, surely that is more a consequence of commercial cowardice than of audience antipathy. There is certainly no lack of singing stars from the worlds of rock and rap or Broadway or cabaret.
Luhrmann is not wrong in believing that new ways have to be dreamed up to connect the musical with a new moviegoing generation, but what he’s done in Moulin Rouge is to scavenge all the old ways and then turn up the heat, burning away any honest feeling. He gives you way too much of what you didn’t really want in the first place: soulless high jinks. Jim Broadbent’s impresario is fond of saying “The show must go on,” but must it go on and on and on?
Jennifer Lopez plays a tough chicago cop in Angel Eyes, but – maybe it’s me – she wears her bulletproof vest as if it were a fashion accessory. Opposite her is Jim Caviezel as a glassy-eyed wanderer who saves her from a thug’s bullet and becomes her loving soul mate. Caviezel manages to keep his faint growth of beard looking perpetually faint, and rather chic. Together, Lopez and Caviezel make quite a pair. Sorrowful yet hip, they seem to be inventing a new mood: designer melancholia. (Caviezel already pioneered his persona in The Thin Red Line.) Director Luis Mandoki and his screenwriter, Gerald DiPego, are also responsible for the Kevin Costner inspirational sobfest Message in a Bottle; their other credits include When a Man Loves a Woman and Phenomenon. It’s high time they founded a religion.
In Brief: Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide is a gangster extravaganza that makes almost no narrative sense whatsoever – even, I gather, to the filmmaker. No matter: It’s an opulent, if instantly disposable, kinetic joyride.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.
Starring Jennifer Lopez.