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3 1/2* The Spirit is Willing, but the Script is Weak
on February 25, 2003
What a frustrating movie! This may be remembered as the film that hastened the return of musicals, and it features dazzling costumes, sumptuous colors, and imaginative film techniques, but there are so many problems that I came away feeling cheated.
It was a creative and daring idea to set a musical in 1900 Montmartre's famed "Moulin Rouge" using contemporary music of the late 20th century. Unfortunately, the film is seriously undermined by the lack of plot development, a contrived romance, and the have-it-both-ways mocking and celebratory treatment of the "Bohemian." The movie alternates between a tongue-in-cheek farce and a serious declaration of the importance of love and other ideals. When the company performs Madonna's "Material Girl" or "Like a Virgin," it plays wonderfully as camp (except for the Duke's ridiculous mugging in the latter song). However, only Jim Broadbent as the master of ceremonies and manager of the nightclub consistently understands the difference between witty camp and lowbrow, diluted, burlesque.
The movie's very promising opening has Toulouse-Lautrec and Satie writing an absurd, avant-garde play, but their original idea for "Spectacular, Spectacular" is co-opted by the financier, the Duke (a buffoonish caricature who is simply too broadly loutish to believe). And yet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Satie still seem to love the production as much as the one they had originally planned. It would have been intelligent and fun to satirize the commercialism of the eventual play, but that opportunity is never taken. Musical tastes will differ, of course, but as the two lovers exchange snippets of love songs of the last 30 or so years, it feels like the pending CD was in mind. The songs that fit best (e.g., "Nature Boy") are repeated ad nauseum. OK, we get it! Kidman and McGregor are excellent given the material (although their characters' romance seems contrived). Both sing well, though Kidman, who often sounds too amped up, is best when singing softer, more intimate songs.
The art direction and sets are beautiful, and there's a luminescent caricature of Montmartre that recalls "Babe, Pig in the City." Techniques reminiscent of early photography and silent movies are superbly done, but limited mostly to the beginning. There are also redundant shots of our woeful hero and the Paris skyline, and so much forced glitter and dazzle that it's like an overdose of the Disney electric parade. Conversely, the cuts are sometimes too quick; one yearns to bathe in more atmosphere. The moments of magic and beauty are too often offset by a banal plot, as well as hollow, self-congratulatory celebrations of freedom, truth, and love. As Satine declares, "diamonds are a girl's best friend," but it feels like box office receipts have the upper hand here.