directed by Baz Luhrmann with Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, and Jim Broadbent opens June 1 at Meridian, Neptune, Oak Tree, and others
WITH FABULOUS ARTIFICE, Aussie multimedia whiz kid Baz Luhrmann has created his biggest, grandest, most heartfelt work as a director, one that borrows shamelessly yet feels utterly fresh and original. Moulin Rouge has maybe a thousand musical cues that trigger samples, cover versions, and bits of original songs; it's po-mo appropriation of the highest order, yet Luhrmann does his cribbing with a loving wink. As with his 1992 Strictly Ballroom, he can't help celebrating what some might deem kitsch and dreck, the cultural/musical oddities that we sing with embarrassed enthusiasm when they come on the car radio. Luhrmann spins Moulin's dial very fast indeed during its first 40 minutes or so, scarcely slowing down the soundtrack (or plot) to allow a moment's pause. It's a good thing, too, because the film's relentless momentum and constant slapstick disguise a flimsy, sentimental core that would appear laughable without the greasepaint and swelling orchestra pit.
So long as it steamrolls forward, however, Moulin wins you over with optimism, energy, and wild visual style. Purportedly a film about love, it's really about Luhrmann's love of showbiz—which outlasts love and life. In an 1899 Parisian backstage milieu, aspiring writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls for chanteuse/ courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). She performs at the fabled, decadent Moulin Rouge cabaret, run by the impresario Zidler (Topsy-Turvy's apoplectically comic Jim Broadbent). New in town, Christian gains entry to the bohemian beau monde thanks to John Leguizamo's simpering dwarf painter Toulouse-Lautrec (the subject of John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge, here, er, diminished to a supporting role)
Embracing clich鳠in a bear hug, Luhrmann sketches a familiar plot—the dastardly rival, the tubercular cough, the forced betrayal—that never gets in the way of music and dance. Hardly a traditional musical, Moulin features a hybrid score that includes Elton John's "Your Song" (a frequent refrain), Rodgers and Hammerstein, Marc Bolan glam rock, the Beatles, the Police, Madonna, Nirvana, a dozen movie ballads, and, centrally, a 1948 oddball tune, "Nature Boy," popularized by Nat King Cole and here variously sung by David Bowie, Leguizamo, Kidman, and McGregor.
KIDMAN CAN CARRY a tune, as it turns out, although McGregor's considerably more unsteady in his warbling. (At least the Trainspotting star's dancing is better than his wide-eyed innocent act.) Together, they're no Fred and Ginger, which Luhrmann generally obscures with spectacle. (Movie musical lovers will find many references to enjoy here, including nods to Busby Berkeley.) Some of Luhrmann's grand set pieces suggest the lavishly overwrought and emotional style of Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris), assisted by a turbocharged, CG-enhanced camera and hyperkinetic editing. But where are the dancers' feet? Too often, Luhrmann cuts in close at the expense of the choreography.
More than Minnelli, though, the dominant influence on Moulin would appear to be Bugs Bunny cartoons of Luhrmann's youth. Moulin is an affectionate musical spoof, like Chuck Jones' brilliant 1950 Rabbit of Seville, with Toulouse-Lautrec as Elmer Fudd. To that end, Luhrmann's deliberately cartoonish sound effects and camera tricks make Moulin frenetic and funny—but also wearying. So good in To Die For, Kidman's ill-suited to broad comedy, and McGregor also shows the strain. Leguizamo's fey lisp is tiresome even before he opens his mouth, while only Broadbent seems capable of registering Luhrmann's intended over-the-top tone. (Check out his wonderful cover of "Like a Virgin.")
Moulin hasn't got an ounce of cynicism or restraint to it. It's a curiously retrograde project, considering how late, great musicals like Funny Face wove irony and self-comment into their worn fabric. Moulin doesn't comment on itself so much as it congratulates itself for sheer cleverness and verve. It's a movie that struts and preens, all forte and no piano. Yet, for all its self-satisfied flamboyance and bombast, you end up applauding the show.