When a red curtain opens and an orchestra conductor emerges to "direct" the unmistakable 20th Century Fox theme music, we know we're in for something different. Really different. Good different.
Filled with virtuoso special effects and spectacular song-and-dance sequences, Baz Luhrmann's long-awaited Moulin Rouge makes every minute of our collectively held breath worthwhile. In fact, during its opening hour, this critic found it hard to look away even for a second to jot down a note, for fear of missing even a nuanced sparkle in the eye of some French whore.
But enough about me.
Somewhere between a fairy tale and an episode of Sesame Street, sitting on a strange line between history and fantasy, lies Moulin Rouge, a vaguely familiar story about a love affair between a penniless writer and a dying courtesan. Set in Paris in the year 1900, in and around the infamous Moulin Rouge -- a brothel/dancehall in the seediest part of town -- the film quickly tosses us into a whirlwind of a story, windmill included.
Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris, eager to make his mark as a writer. No sooner does he begin to type than a band of bohemian poets and actors literally fall in on him, including the crazed and diminutive Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo, acting on his knees). Together they hatch a plot to take a new musical across the street to the Moulin Rouge in search of a backer for their thrilling new show.
Naturally, before midnight strikes, Christian has fallen in love with the star of the Rouge, the "Sparkling Diamond" Satine (Nicole Kidman), while her boss, the maniacal Zidler (Jim Broadbent) looks on disapprovingly. The man with the money is the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), to whom everyone must suck up. But it wouldn't be a movie unless the Duke was also in love with Sabine -- and boy does he have a mean streak....
Its plot is as old and trite as the most overdone of Greek tragedies, but the fun of Moulin Rouge is all in its telling. Far and away the best part of the movie are the spectacular musical numbers performed by some very good (not great) singers. (All the actors did their own voice work.) When they simply talk, you'll find yourself drumming your fingers, hoping the next number will come along soon. And they always do -- like a machine gun, some 19 performances appear in rapid succession.
The songs are all contemporary numbers unknown to 1900s Paris. While the use of pop songs in period pieces has actually been a mainstay of the musical since the 1940s, it's never been taken to the extremes of Rouge. A Knight's Tale tried this stunt only a few weeks ago, with mixed results. In Moulin Rouge, McGregor belts out "The Sound of Music" in one scene, Broadbent vamps through "Like a Virgin" (yes, Jim Broadbent), McGregor and Kidman duet memorably through a host of love-themed songs while standing atop the elephant in which she lives (yes, elephant), and the entire cast tangos to a Latin-infused version of "Roxanne," with Jose Feliciano backing the group. You won't even realize Marilyn Manson is covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A Knight's Tale's "We Will Rock You" comes off as lame in comparison. Put simply, Moulin Rouge rocks.
The cast is uniformly superb. Jim Broadbent appears larger than life (and he is larger than life to begin with), while John Leguizamo is astonishingly smaller than life... with a French lisp to boot ("the Thpawk-leeeng Die-aaay-mon!" -- try it out loud). Of course, this is Kidman's and McGregor's movie, and when they're together on screen the picture shines brighter than ever. In fact, for their duets, Luhrmann (William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet) really cranks things up, laying on the dazzle and pouring his heart into the movie. The three of them form a remarkably apt trio.
Still, there's only so much of this anyone can take. Moulin Rouge is a movie that wears down the audience and its cast. While it starts off as an unmitigated five-star extravaganza, it eventually flags into mere four-star territory as the film becomes repetitious and a bit slow (heresy!). Still, it's one of the best films of the year to date, following Memento as the only award-caliber film released so far in 2001.
But forget all of that. What you will have witnessed after seeing Moulin Rouge is nothing short of the rebirth of the movie musical. It will certainly be a love-it-or-hate-it experience for moviegoers -- but like they say, if you don't get it, you're just too old. Way too old.
As good as the film is, the Moulin Rouge DVD is better, a lavish, two-disc affair replete with extras. Luhrmann appears on two commentary tracks, and (much like The Matrix) a "follow the green fairy" feature takes you to mini-making-of bits in context with the movie. And if all that's not enough, just pop in the second disc, for inside looks at early script drafts (amazing!), deleted scenes (inspiring!), and just about anything else you could want to see -- including the performance of "Lady Marmalade" at the MTV Movie Awards. Outstanding disc.
The rogues of Rouge