A Star in Need of a Director … Crash and Die Already So We Can Go Home

Despite its celebrated acid wash of spectacle, its campy

send-up of vaudeville and its splashy homage to old movie musicals, Moulin Rouge is the closest thing I’ve

seen to a filmed nervous breakdown. Part Las Vegas floor show, part MTV music

video, part opera, this titanic $53 million turkey brings the Belle Epoque to

life to the music of Madonna, David Bowie, Elton John, Marilyn Monroe and much

worse. Set in 1899 in the decadent Paris nightclub-bordello called the Moulin

Rouge-but filmed entirely on claustrophobic studio sets in Australia-it’s a

kitschy, bloated, cornball retread of the Alexandre Dumas classic Camille with pop songs. I liked it

better when it was La Bohème .

This time it’s not Greta Garbo, but Nicole Kidman who plays

the courtesan dying of consumption, and she’s not legendary Marguerite Gautier,

but an expensive tramp and cabaret star called Satine. Instead of Robert Taylor

as the dashing but naïve hero who falls in love too late to save her, we’ve got

Scotland’s scruffy Ewan McGregor, appearing for the first time with his clothes

on. He plays Christian, a poverty-stricken writer who has come to Paris to

become a bohemian. When the penniless poet first locks lids with the beautiful

but somewhat dopey Satine, she’s descending from the ceiling of the Moulin

Rouge on a trapeze, crooning “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a swirling

circus of can-can dancers. Before you can say “Let’s put on a show,”

Toulouse-Lautrec appears as a limp-wristed, light-in-the-loafers dwarf with a

speech impediment (played by John Leguizamo on his knees) who talks the

gooey-faced poet into writing a new cabaret revue called “Spectacular! Spectacular!”

Under the hallucinatory influence of lime-green absinthe, he thrills the

creative staff of the Moulin Rouge by belting out “The hills are alive … with

the sound of music” and gets hired on the spot.

As the movie blathers on for 130 minutes, a cast of hundreds

thumps and kicks through rap songs (“Outside it may be raining / But in here

it’s entertaining”), an Arabian Nights number replete with belly dancers and

Indian maharajahs, an Argentinian prostitution tango, and other irritating and

pointless excesses designed to recall the glorious days of MGM musicals,

without a shred of their originality or charm. Even the man in the moon sings

along, while the plot spirals downward into a musical farce involving the two

doomed lovers and an evil, jealous, lisping Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who will

close down the club unless Satine sleeps with him on opening night.

Garish costumes, cartoonish sets drowning in glitter and

suffocating fire-engine-red velvet, and hysterical overacting substitute for

taste, imagination and real entertainment value. To save the Moulin Rouge and

the life of the man she loves from the sneering Duke’s murderous henchmen,

Satine must make the ultimate sacrifice. “My heart may be breaking / My makeup

may be flaking / But the show must go on!” she wails, between songs by Dolly

Parton, the Beatles and Bono of U2. It’s stupefyingly awful.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who foolishly thinks he’s

a reincarnated Vincente Minnelli, tried the same revisionist musical ideas in

the equally dreadful Romeo + Juliet ,

but at least the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio kept the kids interested. The

campy Moulin Rouge isn’t likely to

appeal to the same teenage market. Kids don’t even know who Nicole Kidman is,

and the film’s coy flirtation with sexual innuendo is not for the mall trade. I

admire the weird, crazy intensity of Mr. Luhrmann’s anything-goes attitude, but

I prefer eccentricity packaged in one style, not every style at once. Wildly

artificial, with extravagant visuals shot at neurotic angles, it reflects the

director’s obsession with showbiz spectacle, but its operatic emotions just

seem silly. An operatic film with rock songs that lack the weight of Puccini

arias does not fit one critic’s description of Moulin Rouge as a ” folie de

grandeur .” With its twirling cinematography and 10 camera angles per

minute, it’s a film about editing, not art. And the plight of poor Nicole

Kidman, fragile and luminous at the same time, left to her own devices while

trying desperately to carry a tune, is an alarm signal for help under duress.

Mr. Luhrmann cares less about actors than he does about lighting; never have I

seen a star so much in need of a real director. (What George Cukor could have

done with a camera-ready face like hers.)

Chaotic, phony and elephantine to the point of lunacy, Moulin Rouge neither erases the memory

of the color and spirit of fin-de-siècle

Montmartre, captured so brilliantly in John Huston’s 1952 film of the same

name, nor resuscitates the dying art of movie musicals. It’s like being trapped

at a party that doesn’t know when to end, with the exit door locked. If this is

the music-video wave of the future, I want to be elsewhere.

Crash and Die Already So We Can Go Home

Movies in brief: The new and disastrously ill-advised

tendency to infuse old genres with rock songs reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s

famous line: “What fresh hell is this?” The plague that stigmatizes Baz

Luhrmann’s films now spreads to the Arthurian legends in the cheesy,

sock-it-to-me teenage adventure A

Knight’s Tale . Written, produced and directed by Brian Helgeland, who would

have been at a loss to do even one of the three chores, A Knight’s Tale is nothing more than a greedy attempt to exploit

the sudden teenage popularity of Heath Ledger, who was a hit with magazine

editors (if not the public) playing Mel Gibson’s son in the Revolutionary War

saga The Patriot .

Playing the son of a lowly peasant who cheats his way into a

jousting tournament to change his destiny, the young Australian heartthrob

seems miserably at sea with both his clanking armor and his idiot dialogue.

Posing as a bogus knight to ride-‘em-cowboy in the world of competitive

jousting and win the love of a princess, he’s more like Danny Kaye than Errol

Flynn. Sports movies are rarely successful, so who thought a medieval sports

movie in Camelot was a good idea? A movie about a teenage loser who beats the crap out of foppish noblemen

to 70’s classic-rock songs is obviously nothing more than director Helgeland’s

frustrated adolescent fantasy. Clearly, no one ever told him that the nerd in

his room playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to Aerosmith CD’s never

gets the girl. A Knight’s Tale is a

dumb rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale even Sir Lancelot couldn’t save.

Sylvester Stallone

returns to the big mall near you to disappoint once again in Driven . Formula One fans may be thrilled

to know he has created a film that breathlessly captures some of the adrenaline

of Grand Prix racing, but after two hours of spinning around in frenetic

circles accomplishing nothing, the audience waits for them to crash and die so

we can all go home.

The real focus here is

brash, impetuous Jimmy Bly, a driver so fearless he was even a go-cart champ

when he was 8 years old. To this young racing Mozart, Mr. Stallone plays the

aging Salieri, the near-great has-been who shows him the rules of the game.

Sound familiar? It is. In Rocky , it

was the young boxer and the aging trainer. In Rambo , it was the young soldier and the aging colonel. Only now,

Mr. Stallone has run out of ideas and has nothing new to say. The point-if

there is one-is lost in a tiresome parade of meaningless subplots, wasted

characters and four-word sentences that pass for dialogue. Definitely a movie

for people who like to watch things smash and burn, including a few inexplicable

careers.

Hoagy Carmichael’s Homespun Jazz

In a cabaret world often devoid of authenticity, the

engaging performer Phillip Officer is the real deal. Celebrating his new Jerome

Records CD, Hoagy on My Mind , through

May 27 at Arci’s, he sings the bluesy, rhythmic and often bucolic songs by one

of America’s finest but most under-appreciated songwriters, the great Hoagy

Carmichael. The Indiana Hoosier who died in 1981 wrote songs inspired by the

American landscape, became a great influence on Bix Beiderbecke, Bob Crosby,

Kay Starr, Bing Crosby, Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough and many other musicians,

and added warm, no-nonsense reality as an actor to such memorable films as The Best Years of Our Lives , To Have and Have Not and Young Man With a Horn . I don’t know why

more performers don’t investigate his work, but whenever a cabaret headliner

has the taste and intelligence to do so, I’m the first in line to listen.

Joined by an excellent

pianist, Mark Hartman, and the illustrious Chicago jazz violinist, John Frigo,

Mr. Officer is offering one of those rare cabaret acts in which the

accompaniment is as exciting as the headliner. Together they bring enormous

feeling to classics like “Star Dust,” “The Nearness of You” and “Skylark,” and

introduce us to some of the less familiar Hoagy songs, such as the haunting

“Blue Orchids” and the laconic, oddly affecting “Moonburn.” Mr. Officer unveils

a ballad arrangement of “Heart and Soul”-a song I never much liked before-that

is a musical revelation, and in an arrangement both innovative and adventurous,

he even brings a masculine point of view (and a different tempo) to the Marilyn

Monroe–Jane Russell duet, “When Love Goes Wrong,” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes .

Mr. Officer’s sensitive intonation and phrasing blends technical

proficiency with a youthful enthusiasm for Hoagy’s special kind of rural,

redolent, homespun jazz. What he lacks in big-toned pyrotechnics, he makes up

for with piercing sincerity and a love for lyrics that has the ring of personal

truth. The patter is mercifully minimal, even when he talks about Hoagy’s movie

career, and he’s a master at personal interaction with his audience. Phillip

Officer, like Hoagy Carmichael himself, does not play the zither, tell jokes,

relate the story of his life, whistle or slap his cheeks in ragtime. He just

sings-sweetly, happily, reverently and straight from the heart.