Mr. Luhrmann, you may remember, is the feverishly inventive Aussie who wowed arthouse crowds with his feisty first feature Strictly Ballroom in '92 and then went on to Baz-tardize the Bard with the thoroughly modern mess he made of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.
He's back, this time with a much-hyped, and hyperactive, attempt to resuscitate the venerable but volatile musical. But since the ADD auteur had to take time off from his other careers as a music producer, conceptual artist and, presumably, raging speedfreak, to work on Moulin Rouge (which he co-wrote and produced as well), we perhaps can forgive the film for being a little, well, frantic.
An occasionally exhilarating, if frequently disorienting, blend of pat melodrama and you-are-soooo-high style, Moulin Rouge casts erratic Ewan McGregor as a penniless British writer who hits the wild 'n' wooly turn-of-the-19th-century Paris in search of inspiration, freedom and love. He immediately falls in with a madcap band of Bohemian zanies (including the relentlessly irritating John Leguizamo playing, of all people, Toulouse-Lautrec) trying to enlist Satine, celebrated flower of the demimonde (played by the recently de-Cruised Nicole Kidman), in the production of an operetta. The artists hope the show will usher in a new age of Peace, Love and Freedom, and the showgirl hopes that will make the dance hall where she works, the Moulin Rouge, a legitimate theater, and her, a legitimate star. Writer and courtesan fall in love, but alas, as is so often the case in backstage musicals, the money to mount the show comes from a cartoonish Duke (Richard Roxburgh) with dastardly designs on the affections of the beautiful chanteuse.
All of which would be pretty straightforward stuff, were it not for the Nirvana riffs during the floorshow, Kidman's courtesan very deliberately doing Madonna doing Marilyn Monroe and McGregor's Poor Poet cribbing his come-ons from the Beatles. More Siegfried and Roy than Gilbert and Sullivan, Luhrmann and his partner in crime, Craig Pierce, loot and pillage their way through pop culture and popular music, glibly lifting lines from anyone and everyone, from David Bowie to Bob Dylan to Whitney Houston, and hurling them together into a dizzying kaleidoscope of shattered classics and displaced clichés in a nostalgic nightmare Paris so insanely artificial it makes the one in which Gene Kelly was an American look like documentary realism.
With all the money they must have spent on clearing the rights to the purloined lyrics, it's amazing they had any left to buy all the confetti, rose petals, bangles, ruffs and assorted opulent gew-gaws crammed into every corner of every frame.
Barely held together by a script apparently mad-libbed from other musicals, Moulin Rouge looks like something a master scratch-artist might have done, if you could turntable laserdiscs or DVDs instead of LPs. Luhrmann never sits still, never holds the moment, layering and looping visual styles as readily as musical ones. Oozing oomph and ooh-la-la (no, "oozing" is too slow a word, try "spattering") every moment, Moulin Rouge careens madly through Cabaret, samples La Boheme and The Producers, flashes through Flashdance, minces in a maelstrom of music videos and frequently sideswipes The Sound of Music.
With so much in the mix, Moulin Rouge is bound to have some bright spots, and it does. Jim Broadbent steals every scene as Zidler, the Impressario-cum-pimp who runs the club; the sets, though threatening eyestrain, are sumptuous; and at least one of the hybridized set-pieces -- a confrontation between the consumptive starlet and the evil duke, cut with a sizzling mock-opera tango take on the Police's Roxanne -- is a knockout.
Unfortunately, without compelling characters or coherent plotting to keep it afloat, when Moulin Rouge is bad, it's almost intolerable. Leguizamo should be knee-capped for what he's done to the memory of everyone's favorite pint-sized painter; it's impossible to tell from scene to scene whether McGregor's problem is that he can't take his part seriously at all or that he never gets the joke; and some of the oh-so-clever asides nudge the audience's ribs so hard they hurt.
Mercifully, Moulin Rouge moves so swiftly that you're over the low points as fast as the high ones. It's like a really well-made, two-hour trailer for a movie you never get to see; Luhrmann combines what appear to be the juiciest fragments without ever producing a whole. With style constantly swamping the story and the direction veering from pathos into parody, Moulin Rouge may not be more exhausting than it is entertaining, but I'd say it's about even.
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