Moulin Rouge (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Is moviemaking about style, or substance? Today I watched a movie with as much substance as any ever made (The Waterdance), but no style at all. I also watched an insubstantial movie with as much style as any ever made, and that is the review you are reading.

How do you describe this thing?

First, take the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and locate it in 1900 in Paris at the storied Moulin Rouge. Then give it the flamboyant visual style of the Busby Berkley movies, except in color, primary colors at that. Then give it songs and dances. Then make those songs and dances your basic greatest hits of the 20th century - none of which had actually been written at the time the film's story takes place. Then have the entire film performed in the manner of the Three Stooges on speed. Now you have the idea. 

In other words, it's basically a Marx Brothers film, in color, without Groucho. Ewan MacGregor is a perfect Zeppo. (They sound alike, and they even look alike.) John Leguizamo is a perfect Chico. A veritable Greek chorus of circus types takes on the Harponic responsibilities. 


No intentional nudity. Nicole Kidman's right nipple fell out of her top at one point.
If you don't actually have that "idea" I talked about, it's probably because this movie is like nothing before or since. It is a flamboyant, maniacal, lavishly colored, silly musical revue with only the thinnest of plots. Amazingly enough, the plot actually changes from high-energy farce to tragedy at the end, as befitting its Greek roots.

Nicole Kidman is terrific in this, all sweet little Marilyn Monroe "I'm a sweet girl who has to be bad" schtick, hoofing and dancing with the best of 'em. Ewan MacGregor's acting career may not be panning out the way he hoped, but the lad's a good hoofer, and is cast perfectly as the lovesick idealist.

Of course, this doesn't really take place in Paris in 1900. It takes place in the Moulin Rouge of your imagination, the Peppermint Lounge as you pictured it, Club 54 as you dreamed about it, Vegas as it was for Sinatra  - whatever place in your mind where all the beautiful people go to be beautiful, where they dazzle with their wit, where they laugh until dawn, where the colors swirl about as if by magic, where the music never stops, where you imagine finding the love of your life and spending the night with her before you collapse with joy into each other's arms. 

It isn't supposed to show you the details of what the Moulin Rouge was like in 1900. Rather, it intends to show you what it was supposed to have felt like to be there, and it uses the music, and dances, and faces that would get your own juices flowing, and your own shoulders moving, they way you dream theirs must have moved back then. Just remove your thinking cap and watch it, pretending you're there. You'll probably like it.

It has no substance, as I indicated earlier, but in its operatic way, it is as much fun as anything you'll see on screen. I expect it to win several technical Oscars (sound, editing, costumes, set decoration, etc). I expect Kidman to be nominated for Best Actress, Comedy or Musical, at the Golden Globes. 

I liked it except for one thing. Marx Brothers films really need Groucho.  

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Moulin Rouge (2001) is the second film with spectacular production values that I have seen this week (the other being The Lover). Everyone loves this film, and I am no exception, although two things kept me from adoring it. First, much of the music is 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I am more of a 50's and 60's person. Second, as the film switched gears from the Moulin Rouge excitement to the tragic love affair, the pace slowed, the color palette became increasingly muted, and my interest waned. The first two thirds, however, was so spectacular, daring, colorful and high energy that I can forgive the last third. Nicole looked spectacular, sings not only competently, but with heart and soul, and gave a kick-ass performance. The rest of the cast was superb as well. Scoop already mentioned that the production values were outstanding across the board.

Scoop only gave this film a C+. On the other hand, it is not his kind of film on two counts (musical, and not grounded in reality) and he loved it anyway, so I submit that the crossover appeal is a little higher. Lets say B-.

Scoop's notes:

Actually, I like things not grounded in reality, as long as that is consistent. Even though I hate magical realism, I'm OK with magic, and I'm OK with realism. I just think it is important to know the difference. When the entire movie says "I am a fantasy. I am a lie designed to entertain you. Enjoy me", I am completely comfortable with that. Wizard of Oz and The Matrix are great films. Excalibur is one of my ten favorites. Superman and Batman and Earth Girls are Easy are all great fun. And Lord knows I hate those hyper-reality films with hand-held cameras and junkies who rape nuns and give them AIDS. Bad Lieutenant is not one I will ever re-watch.

Moulin Rouge is never meant to be taken as reality, not for a second. It could begin with "once upon a time", or "in a galaxy far, far away". I only object to movies which purport to be grounded in reality but use an impossible supernatural plot twist, or something not possible within the boundaries of natural law. (A psychic resolves the missing plot details in an otherwise realistic script, a reality-based character performs a task not humanly possible, an impossible coincidence causes the denouement, etc). 

A perfect example of the kind of plot development I object to is in White Palace. For an hour, we are watching a great film about two people in pain helping each other through it, becoming lovers even though they are mismatched. Perfectly grounded in reality. Then someone shows up who has the gift of second sight. Immediately, the hair on my neck tingles, and I think "Oh, I see. The movie is an entertaining lie, like Roger Rabbit, or my dad's baseball stories. For a minute there, I thought I was watching the truth."

You see, although there is a literary movement called magical realism, there is no such thing as magical reality. As soon as you introduce one thing which cannot possibly happen, then you make the story a lie. Some people like the artful blending of the two, and I don't deny that it is a valid literary device. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • Full-length production commentary

  • 2-disks, many features (see the link)

As for musicals, Singin' in the Rain is one of my favorite movies, as is Robin and the Seven Hoods, and Cannibal the Musical. I like virtually every musical with Fred Astaire, everything written by Gershwin, and that crazy dance at the end of Groove Tube. I think the South Park movie is one of the greatest achievements in mankind's brief stay on the planet. I even like Hair. Well, kinda. I don't hate musicals at all. But I hate a lot of them, as most people do.

Having said all that, Tuna is probably right about the grade. I like this movie despite having no love for 70's music, or cornball love stories, or elaborate dance numbers. It just does it all so well, that it carries in its wake even grouchy old heterosexual webmasters, and gets their shoulders moving. So it probably should be B- or higher. And Kidman was awesome!

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a quarter stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 88, BBC 4/5.

  • Two Oscars in eight nominations. Three Golden Globes in six nominations, including Best Picture, Comedy or Musical.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.7.
  • With their dollars ... it was a minor hit. It took in $56 million domestically against a $52 million budget. It was a smash hit in the UK, with revenues of $25 million dollars in a country with 1/5 the population of the USA.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop originally graded this film a C+, as a magnificent one-of-a-kind example of a self-indulgent fantasy musical. (Tuna says B-, and Scoop concedes that is probably correct)

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