- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

Baz Luhrmanns latest kaleidoscopic travesty, "Moulin Rouge," has been touted by self-interested or misinformed parties as the first fresh approach to the movie musical in decades. Given the wrongheaded tendencies of Mr. Luhrmann and his Australian cohorts, who vamped Shakespeares "Romeo & Juliet" into decorative tatters a few years ago, its not surprising that "Rouge" proves just another stale fiasco.
The last stylistic breakthrough remains Herbert Ross movie version of Dennis Potters "Pennies From Heaven," a quixotic triumph at best because it has influenced no subsequent attempts to revive the genre in the past 20 years.
Not that the suffering musical has fallen completely on hard times. It flourished in another format when Disney recruited the song-writing team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."
Dozens of features, from "The Mask" to "Bring It On," have contrived to slip musical highlights or the isolated production number into comedy scenarios. Television keeps reviving vintage Broadway shows, and fond and capable filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh botch well-meaning attempts at nostalgic musicals.
The Branagh botch, meant to enhance Shakespeares "Loves Labours Lost," appeared only last summer, when the underrated dance musical "Center Stage" actually contrived engaging ways of blending pop with classical ballet.
So theres not much justification for greeting a Luhrmann botch as a joy or revelation. Mr. Luhrmann has his claque, as Ken Russell did during a whirlwind heyday in the 1970s, when "Tommy" and "Lisztomania" seemed to be the last word in flamboyant tastelessness and illustrative overkill.
Those of us who enjoyed panning Mr. Russell at his most bombastic and ludicrous feel a nostalgic pang when confronted with Mr. Luhrmanns derivative extravaganzas, which just dont measure up in terms of optimum overripeness and dementia.
Not that Mr. Luhrmann doesnt give it the overcompensating try. The title could mislead people who remember John Hustons 50-year-old biographical movie with Jose Ferrer as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the dwarfish and obsessive painter who tried to immortalize performers and fellow habitues encountered at the famous French nightclub, where the cancan became a house specialty.
John Leguizamo is cast as a character called Toulouse, but he has no discernible artistic vocation. A lisping mascot, he functions only as a pathetic flunky for the principal characters: a consumptive chanteuse called Satine (Nicole Kidman) and the gauche young poet who adores her named Christian (Ewan McGregor).
Their infatuation supposedly is threatened by a wicked moneybags: Richard Roxburgh as an effete Englishman, the Duke, courted by the impresario of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler, a gargantuan caricature as embodied by Jim Broadbent, certainly encouraged to accentuate the broad and gross.
The idea that Satine and Christian need to deceive the Duke is exploited initially for blundering boudoir farce and then for insipid heartache, aggravated by medleys of anachronistic love songs that the co-stars warble as slowly as humanly possible.
Indeed, the only effective suspense element in the presentation exploits this mystery: Will Miss Kidman and Mr. McGregor manage to sing even slower and droopier in their next number?
Because dread Duke appears impotent at best and easily gulled as a practical matter, Mr. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce squander a great deal of expository and developmental time pretending that hes a menace. On the contrary, his line of perversity somehow has eluded these superficially perverse fantasists: The Duke would appear game for anything Satine would care to do, as long as he got to watch.
While portraying Parisian show-folk circa 1900 as craven and degenerate, Mr. Luhrmann persists in soliciting crocodile tears for a heroine and hero ostensibly thwarted by a greedy and salacious benefactor. Given the decorative resources and melodramatic license permitted Mr. Luhrmann in both "Romeo & Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge," this prejudice seems a bit ungrateful.
It would be easier to tolerate a screwball musical tear-jerker that demonstrates some genuine affection and compassion for tarnished entertainers and their lovelorn admirers, even titled lovelorn admirers.
The movies redundant tendencies are foreshadowed in a prologue, which cleverly stages an orchestral performance of the 20th Century Fox fanfare in front of a theater curtain and then undercuts the jest by doing a few bars of "The Sound of Music" as well.
The only brainstorms that work as stylistic novelties during "Moulin Rouge" are trick shots that miniaturize the Parisian settings. The inability of Mr. Luhrmann or choreographer John Connell to photograph or sustain a cancan invites justifiable suspicion of evocative negligence or incompetence.
The ornate elephant structure in a plaza near the club is a happy prop. For storytelling purposes, the architectural beast houses Satines boudoir, but metaphorically it gives a white-elephant production a literally elephantine set.
What preoccupies and saddens you as "Moulin Rouge" runs itself ragged with garish imagery and stupefying shenanigans is the plight of Miss Kidman. She has had a rough year or two, on and off the screen.
Satine plays like some kind of final and unforgivably heartless humiliation. Obliged to simulate slutty, sickly and angelic in the same package, the leading lady is placed in a grotesque fix.
Although Christian is no prize, Mr. McGregor can finesse some of the dumbness by photogenic fascination: Hes starting to resemble both Mr. Branagh and the late Laurence Olivier in their 30s.
Perhaps Mr. Luhrmann shouldnt be trifling with a European show-business milieu at all. The only production number that looks potentially cheerful and beguiling evokes Bombay movie musicals. Perhaps he would be more sincere doing homage to that mecca of show business.
Is it my imagination, or does Mr. Luhrmann seem more comfortable with chorus boys in turbans, bras and tattoos than chorus girls in petticoats? Just asking.


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