Normally, when I hate a movie, I can, at the very least, see what drew a more positive response from those who liked, even loved it. Then there is Moulin Rouge. Every year my NCAA Basketball Tournament Bracket has some cheeky, Oscar inspired name. In 2001 my team name was “Ken Hated Moulin Rouge.” Needless to say, I hadn’t revisit Baz Luhrmann’s musical since it first came out. Would time give me a new perspective on the film? Was my original aversion a backlash against it being (in my mind) overpraised? Or was it really as bad as I remembered it being?
What I Said Then
In my original review of Moulin Rouge (at Viewpoint, a precursor to this blog), I wrote:
[…] Not since A Thin Red Line have I looked at my watch so many times in the course of a movie’s second hour in the desperate hope that it would be ending significantly sooner than the screen action gave me cause to hope for.
Moulin Rouge does have a few things going for it. The set designs are lavish and visually interesting. The leads are attractive and have chemistry. Unlike the last anachronistic musical (Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) everyone can actually sing. But on the whole the film is a prime exhibit of why Hollywood can’t do musicals any more. It is not that I object to the anachronistic use of music per se, although I’ve never seen it actually work. Rather it is that the songs used to express the emotion are so shallow and superficial that we fail to get any sense of the characters or their relationships beyond the most generic. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on 80s pop music, so I genuinely like these songs. But I was also around for the renaissance of the stage musical brought on by such hits as Evita, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar. What these shows understood that Moulin Rouge doesn’t (nor did Cats and A Chorus Line for that matter) is that the best songs create emotion while advancing the plot, not stopping it. The very things that makes popular music successful on the radio–instant identification of emotion, repeated bridges, ironic self-awareness–are poison to the movie musical. The set pieces don’t merely stop the action, they prevent it from ever happening. Christian falls for Satine within five minutes of the film starting and we know no more about her than he does: she looks good in a gown and can sing “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend.”
Elton John, The Police, and Madonna are all talented musicians and there is a certain joy in some of their music. In three minute increments any of the show’s songs would be very pleasing to watch. Strung together one after the other they all begin to sound alike and look alike.
What I Say Now
I am, I concede, in the minority on this one. Moulin Rouge has a 78% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes (based on 174 reviews), meaning the admirers outnumber the naysayers roughly 4-1. That’s not exactly overwhelming–as of this writing, Thor, Bridesmaids, and Fast Five all had similar or higher rankings–but neither is it meaningless. Its score at Metacritic is a decidedly more muted “66.” The slightly lower score here may be attributed to the fact that the latter site calculates not just “positive” and “negative” reviews (the former outnumber the latter 22 to 3) but also includes “mixed” reviews (of which it counts 10).
The Metacritic site would offer me a lifeline, then, if I simply wanted to argue that the film was “overrated” or not as good as its fans want to make it out. The problem, though, is that I don’t want to make that claim. My claim, my experience, is that the film was bad, and those who hold that view are a pretty thin minority on either compilation site.
My reasons–or my response, rather, since I really want this review to be a description of my own response and not an argument (more on that in a second)–haven’t changed much since the initial viewing. The first sentence quoted above jumped out at me because on this viewing I consciously tried to avoid looking at my watch, only giving in after my fifth (or so) impulse to do so. Twenty minutes had passed in a 127 minute film. Do I watch more television than I used to? Am I more impatient? Possibly. But it just feels to me like the film starts off on one note and just stays on it the whole time. The characters and plot are both so static.
If I had to speculate–and it is just that, speculation–I would guess that what appeals to Moulin Rouge‘s fans is the emotion. In an age of jaded cynicism, there can be something refreshing in unabashed sentiment. I’m not against that earnest, bombastic expression of love. Heck, I’m a big fan of Titanic, Notting Hill, and Shakespeare in Love, each of which is fueled by similarly articulated reveries about how really, love is the most swell thing there is. Each of those films, though, had people in them that I actually believed were in love. They were talking about their particular love for another, particular person. Here, all the emoting seems to be about love in general. A lot of that has to do with the pop songs, I know, which are by their nature generic so as to serve as an objective correlative to the widest array of listeners.
One of the points of this series is for me to examine how my approach to film has changed over the last ten years. What I realized in revisiting Moulin Rouge was not that my review of the film would be much different. Rather, it was that today I probably wouldn’t review the film at all (unless it was a particular assignment for a particular venue). I’ve realized in the last few years that I don’t enjoy nor get much out of critical opinion wars, and my initial review–heck, even the end of year category of “Most Overrated”–seemed to be more about carving out a piece of turf, situating myself in the critical landscape than it was about actually interacting with the work of art itself. I think, I hope, that today I would let the film’s admirers, who are many (and who can’t all be idiots) have their say, investing the majority of my time and resources into championing that which genuinely spoke to me.
Does that mean I only should write positive reviews? I hope not. For professional reasons I see a lot more films than most people, many earlier than others have a chance to see them. Some people, I know, just want a take on the film in order to calibrate their expectations, hone their appetites, or get to know me a little better. That’s fine, but I wish sometimes that film writing was more of a dialogue and less of a lecture. In that spirit, let me give a shout out to the readers who liked the film. Tell me about your experience. It doesn’t have to be an argument. You probably won’t convince me that I really do (or can) like this film, and I won’t try to argue that you shouldn’t. Maybe, just maybe, however, in learning about how you enjoyed something, I can learn about you.