There’s an old saying that the addled poor are called mad, but if one has enough money or power you’re considered merely… eccentric. The jury is still out on Baz Luhrmann. He’s the force behind a variety of projects, he produced the feel good quasi-motivational pop single "Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", and his previous films have ranged from the fairly straightforward Strictly Ballroom to the massively stylish and borderline heretical William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. With Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann single-handedly attempts to resuscitate the big and splashy Hollywood musical, and one cannot accuse him of a lack of effort. You’ve probably never seen anything like it. Depending on your point of view, this may or may not be a good thing.
Luhrmann has taken a classic tale of a penniless writer (Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with a stunning and exotic showgirl (Nicole Kidman) in the famous turn of the century Paris nightclub and pumped it full of color, motion, and modern-day pop songs. It’s brash, garish, loud, audacious and very ambitious. But it’s not always imaginative; as often it seems more a cut-and-paste of scenes and concepts from other films. Luhrmann shamelessly borrows from wide sources, plagiarizing Marilyn Monroe’s "Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend" production number almost intact except for placing Kidman at its center, and purloining Gene Kelly’s lamp post pose from Singin’ In The Rain.
There will be no middle ground with this film. Some will love it enough to see it ten times or more, buy the soundtrack CD and sing along until they wear it out, in tears all the while. Others will find it one of the most spectacularly bad films in years, rivaling Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – it can be that laughable at times. Luhrmann takes many risks here, not the least of which is totally integrating the songs into the story line. In most musicals the plot usually goes on hold while each song is performed; here the songs and the story are almost always one and the same. So if you find the lyrics of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s "Your Song" spoken verbatim to be suitable as film dialog, you may consider Luhrmann a brilliant visionary. If seeing the previously-distinguished Jim Broadbent (Little Voice, Topsy-Turvy) in near clown makeup, dancing and singing to "Lady Marmalade" raises a chuckle in your throat, you will probably not appreciate the film’s many other excesses.
And excesses it has, from extravagantly overpopulated dance numbers shot with bombast and ever-present Mylar confetti maelstroms, to constantly swooping camera shots and rapid-fire editing even where none is called for. The film is so intent at impressing that with very few exceptions every scene is a big one, every line of dialog is pregnant with dramatic pauses. Every camera shot is soft-focused and stop-actioned and grainy-printed to within an inch of its life, and all close-ups are fisheye lens oppressive and smothering. As a result the film has little sense of pace. The breakneck rate at which information is shoveled on screen and into our ears becomes wearying after a while, especially when Luhrmann insists on resorting to cheap tricks like punctuating screen actions with cartoon sound effects.
The acting is hard to assess since Luhrmann’s rapid-fire direction makes most of the performances indistinguishable. Each performer moves like the floor is a hot griddle and speaks as if they’re getting paid by the word. Luhrmann’s editing doesn’t help here either; every scene seems to use at least four times as many edits as even MTV music videos normally employ. So to comment on the merits of John Leguizamo’s Toulouse-Lautrec makes about as much sense as trying to do play-by-play commentary on an individual ant in an anthill.
One item is of no doubt, however. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both do their own singing in the film, and both are very impressive. Kidman’s solo performance of "One Day I’ll Fly Away" is notable. McGregor’s singing voice is particularly remarkable, and it’s put to wondrous use in several poignant duets with Kidman ("Elephant Love Medley", "Come What May"). Unfortunately, these are just about the only leisurely paced and borderline tranquil moments in the film – the rest is like being stuck inside a kaleidoscope for two hours while a madman plays a calliope next to your ear.
– Bob Aulert