Three films into his directorial career, Baz Luhrman's first effort now appears prophetic: Like the protagonist of Strictly Ballroom, he seems comfortable only when dancing to steps of his own invention. Fortunately, it works out pretty well most of the time. Who can complain about such mundane matters as a poorly developed plot and thinly sketched characters when Luhrman offers a vision of lovers singing Elton John's "Your Song" while traversing Paris on top of clouds accompanied by a mustachioed moon voiced by Placido Domingo? Moulin Rouge is Luhrman's crazily audacious—and occasionally just crazy—tribute to the eponymous fin de siècle Parisian cabaret, the power of popular song, and love with a capital "l" (and a capital "o," "v," and "e"). Aspiring writer Ewan MacGregor arrives in 1899 Paris in search of the bohemian paradise reputed to exist in Montmarte. Before the first reel ends, the young Englishman has joined an acting troupe led by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), spontaneously composed "The Sound Of Music" for a play about Goethe, participated in a medley joining Rodgers and Hammerstein to T. Rex, gone whacko on absinthe and hallucinated a Tinkerbell-like fairy who looks like Kylie Minogue and sounds like Ozzy Osbourne, and arrived at the Moulin Rouge itself, a bustling pleasure palace where the greatest hits of the 20th century provide operatic accompaniment to the crowds' mood. Nicole Kidman serves as the focal point of the festivities, a singing, dancing courtesan who's part Marilyn Monroe, part Sally Bowles, and part, it's soon revealed, Camille. MacGregor is scheduled to pitch Kidman on his troupe's latest play, but misunderstandings place him in her arms instead, and subsequently find him joining her, Leguizamo, and the others to obtain financing for the production from a wealthy duke (Richard Roxburgh) more concerned with bedding her than helping the arts. As much Bugs Bunny as Busby Berkeley, and more MTV than anything else, Moulin Rouge presents a world in which characters' outsized emotions can only be contained by song lyrics, and only conveyed by swooping, rapid-fire, anything-goes camerawork. Its best moments come as close to magic as the action sequences of Crouching Tiger; its worst reveal a film achingly in love with its own audacity. When MacGregor offers a snippet of "Up Where We Belong," it rescues the song from kitsch, but when theater manager Jim Broadbent launches into "Like A Virgin," it threatens to collapse the film into the same. Such moments are thankfully outnumbered, however, and the film's dizzying overall intensity makes it easy to overlook its small flaws, and even its big one. Kidman and MacGregor's romance never convinces, not because they don't fill out their roles capably, but because Luhrman's contraption never allows them any breathing room. Their star-crossed every-lovers inflate their symbolic value until their story only works on a ritualistic level. But where the leads don't seem real, their emotions do, and for all the high-camp posturing and stylistic excess, Luhrman has still crafted a transporting, tremendously openhearted, and deeply endearing film that uses the setting of one century and the songs of another to reinvent the musical for the next. In the process, he creates a film that in the best sense is, for all its borrowed parts, like nothing else.
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