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They say not to judge a book by its cover:
A frontispiece hater could turn to a lover,
If only you got to the end.

You may still despise it a few chapters in,
But stopping too early is almost a sin,
For still you do not know the end.

You may get halfway and still loathe it intensely,
And yet sticking with it could pay off immensely,
If only you got to the end.

Not much more to go, but you’re tempted to quit?
That’s something that nobody wants to admit,
For still you do not know the end.

You finished! I see, and your hatred’s the same?
I thought you would like it, so that is a shame,
At least, though, you now know the end.

MPA rating:  PG-13 (for much sexual innuendo)

Oh, Baz Luhrmann, I don’t know what to make of you. I take pride in enjoying musicals, and I fully expected to like Moulin Rouge! if only for its status as a jukebox musical. I knew it incorporated more modern songs into its 1900 Parisian setting, so I was prepared for the requisite anachronisms. But my gosh, I haven’t watched a film that was this bipolar in tone since, well, Strictly Ballroom, also by Luhrmann.

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I remember Strictly Ballroom as a wholly unique experience. It started out as an obnoxious mockumentary that I was certain I disliked after the first few minutes, but then it just kept getting better, from the romance to the dancing, until it actually won me over by the end. Moulin Rouge! attempts to do the same thing but not nearly as well. The story follows the tragic love story of young poet Christian (Ewan McGregor), who is hastily initiated into a troupe of Bohemian artists and introduced to the lovely Satine (Nicole Kidman), starlet of the Moulin Rouge cabaret and desire of a jealous duke (Richard Roxburgh). That short plot description sounds normal enough, but the in-your-face style is utterly insufferable for the first thirty minutes, with rushed character introductions, sudden tone shifts, cartoonish sound effects, lowbrow humor, choppy editing, and hard-to-decipher dialogue during the musical numbers. My VC decided to stop watching entirely, and I considered it too, though my Blindspot obligation made me stick with it. I read that Luhrmann was trying to channel the tonal rollercoaster of a Bollywood film he had seen, but all his extravagance does is make it difficult to take anything seriously.

And then, slowly but surely, the romance element grows more intense and more serious, managing to achieve the intended epic tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. Despite partaking in a few of the puerile scenes that made me wonder how this movie snagged eight Oscar nominations, McGregor and Kidman are the film’s greatest strength, sporting palpable chemistry and decent musical chops. Their bravura medley of love-themed songs was the first clue that Moulin Rouge! might have more to offer than the beginning indicated.

Yet even if the core romance works well, so much else does not. The musical numbers and the choice of who sings them are a mixed bag and brought to mind the why-not(?) silliness of Mamma Mia! Just as I didn’t really need to hear Julie Walters sing “Take a Chance on Me,” I could have happily gone through life without hearing Jim Broadbent croon “Like a Virgin.” I admired the sheer number of recognizable songs used, but how they were deployed was often cringe-inducing. And even if the tone gets more serious over time, the film still indulges in occasional sound effects that undermine the pathos.

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Moulin Rouge! is a case where its substance is upstaged by its distracting style. Strictly Ballroom managed to even out its tone and become a serious feel-good romance, and I suppose that’s easier than transitioning from surreal comedy to heartbreaking tragedy. I am aware that some people are able to look past Moulin Rouge’s faults and enjoy its over-the-top stylings, such as the Oscar-winning art direction and costumes, and I’m glad they can. I’ll acknowledge it’s original and took a risk, but this is one style I can affirm is not for me.

Best line: (several characters, quoting the song “Nature Boy”) “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Rank:  Semi-Dishonorable Mention (a rarely used ranking to reflect my mixed feelings)

© 2020 S.G. Liput
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