Wednesday, December 10, 2008

At the Movies: Baz Luhrmann's Australia

Q: Jessica, should I spend my hard-earned cash to go see Australia?
A: If you want to, sure.

Baz Luhrmann’s latest offering—four years in the making, apparently—released last weekend to a reception of shaky reviews. Critics are decrying its hokeyness, its over-the-top attempt at an epic, and its length.

But I liked it. It follows in the footsteps of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge with its exaggerated, vaudevillian feel, especially in its early scenes. There are the same quick pans of the camera and a similar type of cinematography, and Nicole Kidman, though she plays a completely different character than Sateen, adopts a few of the comedic affectations she used in Moulin Rouge.

That’s why its over-the-top presentation worked for me: because even as the film strove to be an epic, it winked at the audience a few times along the way. So maybe it was a little outsized. Best I can figure, it was supposed to be. I think any epic is going to fail a little in its attempt at grandiosity and importance—um, Pearl Harbor?—but at least Australia is appropriately self-conscious.

Plus, I think at least some portion of the movie’s over-the-top feel comes from the casting of a certain Sexiest Man Alive. Hugh Jackman swaggers around like a bowlegged cowboy—or, more accurately, a drover, which is evidently both his job and his name, for some reason. The thing about Hugh Jackman is that his particular sexiness seems to be part ruggedness, part big, happy smile. One wonders, if Russell Crowe had been cast as originally planned (or so I heard), would the movie feel a little more like a dusty war epic and less like a parody? Seems possible.

But hey, I got nothing but love for Hugh Jackman, and he made this movie more watchable. There are a few things he couldn’t improve, of course. In a few places I felt unpleasantly aware of the score, and that’s not good. Also, it has to be said: this movie is long. And while I didn’t really labor under the burden of its length, the ending felt a little protracted.

Meanwhile, although the film’s treatment of Australia eschews stereotypes (i.e., there are no shrimps on barbies, very few crocs, and zero dingo babies) in favor of softly sketching a historical and sociopolitical outline of the land down under, sometimes that outline felt a little thin. Its treatment of racial politics, for example, isn’t offensive by any means, but its lack of depth raises a few unanswered questions.

So: Should you see Australia? If you like Baz Luhrmann, I think you’ll find room in your heart for this film. You might also enjoy it if you have a special affection for Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, or the continent of Australia.

But I think you won’t like this movie at all if you fall into either of two categories: 1) You despise melodramatic epics. 2) You love melodramatic epics, but hold them so sacrosanct that a chip in the veneer, or any tongue in any cheek, makes your own cheeks flush with indignation.

So it’s not Gone with the Wind. But really, would you want it to be?

No comments: