With direction by A-list schlockmeister Rob (Chicago) Marshall, one would at least expect the film adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha to look smashing. But even that achievement seems somewhere beyond the capabilities of this relentlessly mediocre bit of Golden Globe bait, which drenches most of its first act in "serious," atmospheric darkness that obscures a decent view of the opulent obis and cute thatched roofs that only later emerge as the movie's true stars.
Because let's face it, that's what we've come to see. Even to those who haven't read the book, the story is predictable: Young heroine Sayuri is sold off by her parents, only to complete a long and difficult metamorphosis into the geisha who has everything save the love of the kindly businessman (Ken Watanabe) she reveres. Played by the lovely Ziyi Zhang, the character learns the ancient seduction techniques that can literally stop men in their tracks. She even gets to perform an elaborate solo dance number. (Why? Because this is a Rob Marshall picture, dammit.)
Despite the presence of every recognizable Asian actor working in Hollywood today, only Gong Li's portrayal of a bratty rival geisha makes an impression that lingers long after the movie's 140 minutes are up. And the story's ostensible turning point the Japanese surrender after World War II seems an odd impetus for lamentation. Old-fashioned glamour takes it on the chin as the country is overrun by grabby Yankee "bastards" who can't tell a geisha from a simple whore. (In case we miss the point, their CO is played by Ted Levine, The Silence of the Lambs' Jame Gumb.) Excuse me the Land of the Rising Sun just lost a social system that had parents selling their female children into indentured servitude, and we're supposed to feel contrite? Far from making me mourn a vanished way of life, the movie had this live-and-let-live lefty thinking that remaking the globe in America's image might not be such a bad idea after all. On to Teheran!