When You Shoot For Brilliance . . .

May 27, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great musical numbers, stunning visuals, Ewan MacGregor

Cons:Slightly trite story, a little too frenetic, too long

The Bottom Line: See this movie. It is a heart-wrenchingly close attempt at brilliance.


A wise man once said, "A movie can ask you to suspend your disbelief once. If you can buy it that once, everything else should not be a leap of logic." For example, if you believe that dinosaurs are brought back to life, you should have no trouble believing that they can chase you around in a kitchen (that electric fence moment, however, is a little too big a stretch).

"Moulin Rouge" asks us to buy one thing. It is huge. It wants us to imagine a time period that is totally removed from history while still being inspired by Paris circa 1900. In buying this we can believe that people know what this time period's place in history is and, most unbelievably, the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The damnedest thing. We believe.

Baz Luhrman was clearly trying to create the musical to end all musicals. Some say, shoot for the stars, and at least you might end up in the clouds. Film audiences, however, know that sometimes you hit the stars and sometimes you fall into the sewers. There is no middle ground. Every single scene in this film is either breath taking or painfully overdone. Luckily, most are breath taking.

Lush visuals, combining wonderful camera work, editing, effects and production design, create an otherworldly environment that is still recognizably Paris. The medley that introduces the titular club of Moulin Rouge is jaw-droppingly spectacular, a whizzing array of kicking legs, winking eyes and snippets of great party anthems. We are as overwhelmed as Christian (Ewan MacGregor), our hero. The artistic process of Christian and his bohemian friends is silliness that is so overdone, it becomes sophisticated. And MacGregor is brilliant, both in his singing and his heartfelt acting.

The story, however, is a strange egg. Luhrman is famous for his MTV-style "Romeo and Juliet" and it is clear he is still in love with Shakespeare. The story feels like it might have sprung from the Bard. Not necessarily from the same region of his Royal Bardliness as "MacBeth" and "Henry V," though. It uses the Clown, here played by John Leguizamo, who may seem the fool, but is the only one speaking the truth. A part that Leguizamo's character (Toulouse Lautrec) portrays in the play within the play. Perhaps it is the fact that the Bard treated us to very formulaic stories that his formula seems so obvious. This heavy-handedness is usually played off well by Shakespeare. Luhrman is not quite Shakespeare, but he does a passable job.

The most disappointing thing about this would-be-masterpiece is the last half. The beginning moves at a dizzying pace, giving us huge medleys combining nearly every great song about love. The end finally gives us full songs, but most of them are not the pop standards we were treated to earlier. In fact, a pivotal song reprised many times I still have not identified. This slows down our enthusiasm, which is already faltering at the three or four false climaxes.

Yes, the movie is essentially a trite story about a person who doesn't understand love searching for it. Then, so was "Romeo and Juliet." Yes, the musical brilliance of the opening forty-five minutes is never really matched. Baz Luhrman tried to pull off a brilliant show. He falters at times and those moments stick out like a sore thumb. But the show must go on and this is a film that cannot be missed because when it succeeds, you will be blown away.

Four and a half out of five stars


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