The long-in-the-planning Baz Luhrmann epic "Australia" tries to cram enough movie as it can into its nearly three hour length, combining elements of "Gone with the Wind," "Red River," "Pearl Harbor," and "Out of Africa" in a mess of a story that is big, grand, camp and as dumb as a mulga stump.
It doesn't help that Luhrmann also cribs his style from other movies in a kind of short-hand attempt to stuff as much meaning into the thing as possible. For instance, in the most problematic section of the film—its beginning—"The Drover" (Hugh Jackman) is introduced in a series of shots cribbed from Eastwood intro's directed by Sergio Leone. Nicole Kidman's entrance is a bit like a screwball-comedy version of "Out of Africa," which is the cinematic equivalent of oil and water. In fact, rather than reminding one of the Pollack film it is more in line with the unsubtle comedy stylings of Spielberg's "1941"— which is to say, faces fill the screen with mouths agape in horror, comedy-lines are buried in the cacophany, and the main comedic engine is not surprise, but shock. The first half-hour is so full of schticky slap-stick and a frenetic cut-around style that circum-navigates what's going on screen, that it feels like you're watching the vicinity of the movie rather than the movie itself.
After Kidman's Lady Ashley arrives at the estate of "Faraway Downs," things calm down a bit, stylistically—in fact, they never go back to that early, dizzying pace. Luhrmann lets one shot stand in for the five he could have scissored together before and so the movie gains a certain amount of coherence for the rest of its run.
That's not too good a thing, as it quickly becomes a series of "Can You Top This" crises that has everything (as the Thelma Ritter line goes) "but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end." Pageantry stands in for plot, the villainy snears and twirls its mustache in obviousness, and the technical wizardry is of a kind that has the falseness of portraiture heavy on the air-brushed rouge. For all the cooing about the beauty of Australia, it's gussied up like a tart in church. One also gets the impression that a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to hide imperfections. The shots of the stars galloping to stop a cattle stampede before they throw themselves off a cliff, taking an aboriginal child with them (yes, I'm not joking) are done in claustrophobic close-up, not to show the drama on their faces, but to hide the mechanical horses they seem to be riding and the computer generated back-drop that doesn't quite work.
And this is the essential problem: Baz Luhrmann is not the director for this kind of movie—he might have thought he was, since he wrote the turgid thing, but the direction is quite beyond him. Luhrmann is not a maker of epics, he takes small projects and blows them up to their maximum potential. In "Australia," he just seems lost as to which movie he's making: historical, romantic, adversarial, western, advocacy--it's all there, but trotted out one at a time as if he suddenly realizing, "Crikey, forgot the romance...we'll do romance for a bit" Luhrmann is a man best suited on a sound-stage, not a location: under a proscenium arch, not the big sky. He's a man of the theater, and he makes everything theatrical. Under his watch, the natural doesn't stand a chance.
One is left thinking how impractical it all seems, like the entire movie is a propped-up false-front. The costuming is designed tight to show off Kidman's shoulder blades and Jackman's pectorals but not to be in any way practical.
The one joy gleaned from the film is of Aussie film-actors from the past who shine in this: Jack Thompson from "'Breaker' Morant," Bryan Brown who knows instinctively how to perform in a Baz Luhrmann film, big and grand, Bruce Spence, the indispensable thin-faced character actor and David Gulpilil, who has been the acting face for Australia's aboriginal people for thirty years. Seeing them is like visiting old friends.
You just wish you could have met somewhere else.
"Australia" is a cable-watcher, despite the scope and attempted grandeur.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008