There's plenty to chuckle about in "Moulin Rouge," an overwrought, tremendously busy but essentially hollow toast to the infamous Parisian hot spot, from Romeo + Juliet director Baz Luhrmann. Not the least of which is the eagerness with which Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor attempt to make an emotional connection with each other and with us, despite the layers upon layers of fabulous-looking artifice. Glitter fills the interiors. Stars are forever spark-ling in a sky topped with a singing man in the moon (Placido Domingo). It's Hollywood. It's a circus. It's the Magic Kingdom. It's MTV. It's Bollywood.
And the anachronisms are as quirky as they wanna be, beginning with the punky chrome-domed conductor in a tux, leading an unseen orchestra as the opening credits roll. It's not long before we're treated to the spectacle of Christian (McGregor), a struggling writer new to the bohemia of Paris in 1899, "the summer of love," delivering with great gusto this contribution to a production being coordinated by a dwarfish, lisping Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo): "The hills are alive/ With the sound of music." Moments later, Christian offers another jarring interlude: "Love is like oxygen. Love is a many-splendored thing. Love lifts me up where I belong. All you need is love." Yikes.
"Moulin Rouge," for many viewers, will have the effect of an audio-visual punch to the cranium. It's an orgy of neo-operatic bombast that amounts to a long series of oddly uninvolving musical numbers, most featuring the sufficient vocals of McGregor and the relatively thin ministrations of Kidman. One duet has the two touching on KISS's "I Was Made for Loving You" and U2's "Pride (in the Name of Love)." Elton John's "Your Song," too, figures strongly in the plot. Go looking for culture or history or a compelling storyline in this film, and you won't be satisfied.
Kidman, she of ruby lips, pale skin and adept, sexy comedy routines, nevertheless was an inspired choice for the role of Satine, the comeliest of entertainers and a sort of highly paid call girl for club owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent). Her early numbers are among the most effective: Dressed in silver, with diamond earrings, a top hat and black gloves, she does Marilyn Monroe, with "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," then it's on to Madonna, for "Material Girl."
The gaudy burlesque palace offers loads of entertainment, such as manic can-can dancers and a quartet of vixens (Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink) doing "Lady Marmalade." But the slumming bourgeoisie men and true aristocrats, including the wealthy and villainous Duke (Richard Roxburgh), along with Christian and his pals, are entirely enchanted by Satine.
As for McGregor: He looks good, has a great smile and does the best he can with the material. But the camera loves Kidman and her strong, charismatic presence. Too bad she's tethered to this lackluster story of another hooker with a heart of gold. In order to fulfill her dreams of becoming a great actress, Satine needs to work in a legitimate theatrical production. The Duke is willing to fund the staging, but there's a catch: The starlet must become his love slave, forever.
Alas, romance breaks in. Not too far behind is love's twin, death. (The story is based upon the myth of Orpheus, who visits the underworld to bring his true love back to life.) And just to be sure we get the point, there is another parade of out-of-joint pop songs, including "I Will Always Love You," "Like a Virgin" and "Roxanne." Call it a post-post-post-modern musical. I think of it as a gloriously excessive, lavishly decorated failure.