In the showing of "Moulin Rouge" I saw last week, at least 5 people walked out. At the same time I heard audience members audibly gasping at the films visuals and talking back to the screen. The source of these strong reactions? Baz Luhrmann's confidence in his garish cinematic vision and the commitment his actors have in him. The cast fills their roles with relish, even when the entire scene totters on the edge of overkill--but oddly enough, it is the focus that sets "Moulin Rouge" apart from other films these days. Whereas some actors sleepwalk through their roles as they collect their paychecks, everything about "Moulin Rouge" is done in earnest.
This movie is the anti-"Pearl Harbor," because instead of being a hodgepodge of market-tested ideas, "Moulin Rouge" presents a bold vision and dares the audience to accept or reject it. I, for one, accepted it with delight. A telling comparison: Luhrmann has Nicole Kidman and Ewen MacGregor sing the film's love song. Very daring. For "Pearl Harbor" Michael Bay chose Faith Hill. Very safe. Too safe. Can you imagine Ben Afleck belting out "There You'll Be"?
"Moulin Rouge" glitters with such bold decisions. It is a sumptuous feast for ear and eye featuring gorgeous costumes, intricate sets (Nicole Kidman's boudoir in a gigantic elephant is a case in point), and outlandishly choreographed dance numbers are paraded with frenetic relish. And the music, the MUSIC! As you probably know by now, Luhrmann has thrown into his period piece a collage of musical snippets from, among many bits, "The Sound of Music," Madonna, The Police, and Elton John. In most cases, no one song gets performed without intersplicing. Witness Luhrmann's audacity: the opening number includes a melding of Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And here's the spooky part: it works.
The entire movie plays this way, and for the most part it works. Most surpising is that "Moulin Rouge" has a solid, deeply sincere emotional core. Although the film professes to be about love, I'd add that it is equally about loss. The Moulin Rouge is a playground where adults pretend they are children with the added spice of sensuality.
All the performances are excellent, but the hidden gem is Jim Broadbent as Zidler. Broadbent for years has been doing majestically understated supporting work, from "Brazil" to "Enchanted April" to "Topsy-Turvy." In "Moulin Rouge" he manages to be both repulsive and endearing. His spirited rendition of "Like a Virgin" is classic. Too bad it's not on the soundtrack.
Expect to be overwhelmed by "Moulin Rouge" in the most unexpected, delightful ways. It will make you wonder why other films can't or won't dare to be that bold.