Monday, December 1, 2008

Blunder Down Under

Last Friday, I ventured to the multiplex to marvel at Baz Luhrmann's eight-years-in-the-making, two-years-in-the-waiting "Moulin Rouge!" follow-up, "Australia." Anyone who reads this blog knows I've been heralding the Down Under "Gone with the Wind" for months (just look here, here, here, and here). As expected, it was big and it was beautiful and it started out an enjoyable ride. But when I (FINALLY) walked out of what had been my most anticipated film of the season, I was crushed by a most tragic feeling: I don't think I ever want to see this movie again. What went wrong?

1. It's way too big for its britches.
I'm not daunted by long running times. Eight more endings and an additional hour in the extended cut of “The Return of the King?” I'm there. Six hours of HBO's grand miniseries “Angels in America?” Sign me up. But if I'm gonna devote that much time to a single piece of work, it'd better be masterpiece material or, at least, continuously entertaining. “Australia” clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes but trudges on for what feels like forever. I understand that Luhrmann was attempting to give equal play to three major cornerstones of his native land's history – life in the outback, Aboriginal discrimination, and the under-documented effects of the war on the nation – but, crikey, couldn't he have been a tad more selective in what he chose to show? I love sprawling flicks that have everything, but give me the goods in balance doses and, atop that, choose a flagship storyline. Not seamlessly but suffocatingly, “Australia” is an adventure tale, a gooey romance, a social commentary, a fantasy, a war film, a hackneyed comedy, a melodramatic soap opera...did I miss anything? As the movie nears its elusive end, it's anyone's guess which story thread will be used to tie things up. If Luhrmann threw any more shrimp on the barbie, the screen would go up in smoke.

2. It's cheesy.
One of the heads of “Australia”'s narrative hydra – penned by four screenwriters, including Luhrmann – involves the voodoo-mysticism of the Aborigine people, specifically that of King George (David Gulpilil, above), the teleporting grandfather of Lady Sarah Ashley's (Nicole Kidman) and Drover's (Hugh Jackman) adopted son, Nullah (Oprah favorite Zachary Taylor). The “magic” – which includes, but is not limited to, King George's uncannily omnipresent, flamingo-posed perch above each scene – works to a point, but it fast becomes yet another overindulgence. Usually, Nullah seems to be the only one who notices his grandpa's miraculous materializations. That is, except for us. We see him – a lot. The non-stop arrivals of the character flip him from intriguing to tiresome and cause the culture's incantations to go from mysterious to silly. That's about the time that the film's better half wraps up, via a dizzying and pretentious flash-forward sequence that sails across every landscape of the topographically diverse continent and a honky-dory home-sweet-home scenario that's so sappy/happy I had to make sure I wasn't stuck to my seat. And then disaster strikes.

3. It's rife with cliches.
The easiest thing to love about “Australia” is its out-and-out gorgeousness. The second easiest thing is its unabashed evocation of Hollywood classics. As mentioned, it's every bit David O. Selznick's magnum opus transported to a lower spot on the globe. Unfortunately, it's also lower on the totem pole. Its perpetual homages are charming on the outset, and even into the halfway point: the breathtaking stampede; Jackman's breathtaking, white-suited entrance; the breathtaking kiss in the rain. But the classic soon gives way to the cliche...big time. Brain-slapping stupidities start to herd together like cattle. Once Luhrmann serves up a blockbuster-friendly Japanese attack, his movie turns into every bad actioner in one lump sum. The sidekick-as-martyr bit? Check. The villain's final, futile attempt at vengeance just before death by a supporting character? Check. Off into the sunset? Check. Again, it's clear what the Aussie director is going for: a movie released today that plays like it was made 50 years ago. But, I don't think, in this post-postmodern age of cinema, that one who's serious about film can tolerate so much rampantly banal content in one place – especially not for nearly 3 hours.

“Australia” is not a terrible movie. It's a visually accomplished picture with a strong foundation, a story worth telling, technical wizardry, and fine acting. The skin on those bones is what drags it down, and my trampled expectations are what fuel this critical fire. It saddens and baffles me that a miracle maker like Luhrmann can devise something as wildly and immortally inventive as "Moulin Rouge!," disappear for nearly a decade crafting a subsequent feast, and return with something this overstuffed and trite. The prestigious talent and expansive eye candy present here slow my hand, but they can't stop me from calling “Australia” what it is: an epic disappointment.

3 stars (out of 5) -- but just barely.


Janice said...

Spot on. (That caption in the first photo had me giggling, which is more than i can say for the film.) I had a very similar feeling sitting in my seat, and when my sweetie and I were leaving, she said "That wasn't as good as I was expecting" in that quietly accusatory tone that implies "It was your idea to see this, you know". And all I could do was agree.

Baz may have wanted to make a throwback to the epics of the Studio era, but back then the studios kept tight control over all of their product. Directors (and actors) balked, but some fine work did come out of Hollywood those years. Baz trying to make an old Hollywood epic whilst avoiding the system in which those epics were made and having absolute free rein for himself is missing the point.

Baz is obviously someone who needs "boundaries"; this film makes me doubt that he's the "genius" everyone around him (desperately) claims that he is. Talented hack seems more like it. His visual/musical talents are great, but he's more of a set dresser than a director, methinks. But then again, I'm not sure that ANY director (particularly those who are male and under 50 yrs of age today) benefit from endless praise, and having scads of money thrown their way with no oversight whatsoever. (Also reminds me a bit of the whole TARP fiasco.)

I found this site through the link Nathaniel Rogers provided on the Film Experience, btw. Great job!

Kurtis O said...

Thanks, Janice. Very keen insights. Please keep reading!