Ron Miller The BEST PICTURE Nominees
Finally, a musical for adults
who were hyperactive kids
By RON MILLER
When I heard the news that "Black Hawk Down" hadn't been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but "Moulin Rouge" had, I knew the world of movies as I knew it finally had come to an end.
"Moulin Rouge" isn't just an awful musical, it's the "Heaven's Gate" of musicals: An epic exercise in self-indulgence that only seems twice as long as "Gone With the Wind." It's the sort of movie that can't wait to be a DVD, so the filmmakers and other talent involved can tell you how cleverly they spent tens of millions of dollars to achieve innovative new things you'll only be aware of once they tell you they're in the film.
Director Baz Luhrmann actually achieved nothing significant in "Moulin Rouge" except to con ignorant corporate executives into spending their money pumping up an anemic excuse for a storyline into a giant music video. To paraphrase Shakespeare and Faulkner, it's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Luhrmann explains it differently. He says this grotesque film is the third in a series of films--the others were "Strictly Ballroom" and "Romeo + Juliet"--made in a style he calls "The Red Curtain," which means he starts the movie with a big red curtain opening on a proscenium stage where this pseudo-theatrical fantasy is supposed to be taking place. Nothing after that is real. It's just a roller coaster ride of dizzying proportions. It's supposed to take you to somewhere exotic, if you play along with him.
Well, Luhrmann comes from Down Under, so perhaps things always seem upside down to him. I have this peculiar notion that a good movie shouldn't hurt to watch. "Moulin Rouge" hurts to watch because the people and the furniture move around the screen so fast that only a hyperactive kid raised on a steady diet of video games and orange juice laced with amphetamines might be able to follow it.
Another possibility might be that I'm too old to watch movies like this and should be sent back to MTV boot camp. I don't think so. I actually like innovation. I only ask that it not be painful and that when I leave the theater I don't need psychological counselling.
Anyway, I think "Moulin Rouge" is about a young writer/composer (Ewan McGregor) at the turn of the century who gets swept up in "the Bohemian explosion" of the period and somehow winds up at the famous Moulin Rouge nitery in Paris, which has been expanded for the movie so that it's as big as a soundstage that might accomodate the Grand Canyon and all the Rockettes who ever worked at Radio City.
He falls in love with a courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman), who also happens to be the greatest singing star of the era. She also happens to be tied up with a cruel and wealthy Duke who wants her to swing on his trapeze. She also happens to be afflicted with Camille disease, which means she's hacking and coughing her way to an early grave.
So, consider this a star-crossed love story. Do not expect to believe in it, though, since Luhrmann doesn't believe it's important to flesh out the characters in the movie. If you get the slightest bit involved in their romance, then I'll bet you also cry when the Coyote gets flattened by a boulder rolled off a cliff by the Roadrunner.
Grotesquery is Luhrmann's main interest in "Moulin Rouge." Nicole Kidman, who is a rather fetching young woman, has never been photographed more savagely. She looks like a witch through most of the movie--the kind that might adorn the prow of a ship captained by Saddam Hussein. I have a great deal of respect for her as an actor and think she should have been nominated for an Oscar for "To Die For," in which she played an ambitious TV reporter/anchor. Instead, she was nominated for playing Satine. Bad idea. This is not a good performance. I would have sent her home without supper.
One of the affectations of "Moulin Rouge" is that its non-singing stars all sing. Kidman is a trouper and doesn't disgrace herself. McGregor is something else again. If he even sang at a bar mitzvah, I think little kids would have thrown rocks at him. But here he's singing in a multi-million dollar movie. Who signed off on that one?
The other principal affectation of "Moulin Rouge" is the use of famous pop songs of today in a musical set in a remote yesterday. This isn't an innovation. This whole idea was invented by the late Dennis Potter in his truly innovative "Pennies from Heaven" TV miniseries and allowed to fully mature in his follow-up TV event, "The Singing Detective." In "Moulin Rouge," it's simply a way to avoid having to write too many original songs.
Actually, it was pretty cheeky of Luhrmann to use "Nature Boy," the old Nat Cole hit from the late 1940s, as the opening tune--then to underscore one lyric from it as the theme of his movie: "The greatest thing you'll ever know is to love and to be loved in return."
That works. But when Satine makes her entrance on a trapeze, singing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," you know that gimmick is going to die young. By the time corpulent Jim Broadbent regales us with Madonna's "Like A Virgin," you start praying for a projector malfunction and a full refund.
I don't think "Moulin Rouge" will win the Oscar for Best Picture. But I also thought the public would laugh George Bush Jr. off the national political stage--and look where he is now.
© 2002 by Ron Miller. The "Moulin Rouge" illustration is from the DVD edition of the film and is © 2001 by 20th Century Fox.
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