December 8, 2008

REVIEW: Australia (C+)

Australia bears all the hallmarks of an old Hollywood epic: sappy romance, horrifying bombing scenes, exotic culture, campy comedy, beautiful panoramas, evil villains and a majestic musical score. It's all grand and nostalgic. So then why is the movie such a disappointment?

For one thing, it's way too long. I recently heard an interview with L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan, who quipped that Australia was one of the few movies to feature its own sequel within its running time. It's true - the movie literally ends, with everything tidily resolved, before starting all over again. But it's not that having two movies in one is Australia's problem. It's that both of the movies are bad, which makes it a doubly long chore to sit through.

Unfortunately, Australia bears little of the experimental fun of Baz Luhrmann's last two films, the acclaimed Moulin Rouge! and the underrated Romeo + Juliet. Like most people, I enjoyed those for their wild spirits, not for their conventional character, which makes you wonder why Luhrmann decided on telling a story from his native land with such by-the-book blandness. Somewhere in Australia (and Australia) is an interesting story, but it's obscured by all kinds of unnecessary details (who really cares about the technicalities of a real estate battle in the Outback?).

I'd have liked to learn more about Aboriginal culture, for example, which hasn't been touched on film since 2002's unforgettable Rabbit-Proof Fence (which also starred David Gulpilil, who plays King George here). In Australia, we get whiffs of the controversy and a cute face to admire (newcomer Brandon Walters, who was evidently directed by Luhrmann to channel Jar-Jar Binks), but the discussions are hardly thought-provoking, mostly because you realize everything is meant to revolve around the romance between Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, both native Australians who agreed to star without having read the screenplay. The end result is that I wasn't moved by either the love story or the cultural story, and I was roll
ing my eyes much more than I was my wiping tears away from them.

It's not that there aren't touching moments, but they're mostly accidental and even then they can be attributed to honest acting more than honest writing. Several deaths are truly tragic, and the backdrop of war behind everything eventually adds a somber mood (it's almost welcome by that point). But everytime you feel a touch of emotion coming on there's a silly joke to break up the mood or an impressive visual (and there are some very beautiful shots) to distract you from your own feelings.

Nicole Kidman searches for the end of the movie, not knowing it doesn't exist...

Australia presents us with a veritable smorgasbord of cinematic delights and plot tangents, and it's impossible not to feel uncomfortably full after consuming all of them. You can't push the plate away because it just keeps piling up with more, like some nightmarish buffet for the senses (it's fitting that the film was released at Thanksgiving). The same could probably be said for Moulin Rouge!, but as showy and theatrical as that was, there was something more... real about it. Additionally, it had a great soundtrack compared to Australia, which is almost entirely centered around "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Hugh Jackman asks his droving buddy not to whistle the tune near the end of the movie because it reminds him of a happier time in his life. I felt the same way, actually, and was relieved when he mercifully stopped whistling, partly because I'd grown tired of the song, but mostly because it reminded me of a better movie - one that I knew I'd rather be watching.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+


  1. Yeah, AUSTRALIA just goes on FOREVER.

    And NOT in a good way.

    But I think a C+ is pretty generous. I'd probably give it a C- or in that particular vicinity.

    But of course this is a smashing review. Beautifully written (as always) and chock full of splendid insights.

    "AUSTRALIA presents us with a veritable smorgasboard of cinematic delights and it's impossible not to feel uncomfortably full after consuming them."

    That's pretty damn masterful. The Thanksgiving analogy was perfect. Totally lost on me of course, as our Thanksgiving is always a month and a half earlier.

    Yeah, this was decidedly...GOOFY and over the top. Typical Baz. Or at least the Baz that you're generally used to.

    He's only made a couple of films that I really enjoyed (STRICTLY BALLROOM & ROMEO & JULIET - despite my keen allergy to CLAIRE DANES) so I think I'll quit on Baz while I'm ahead...

    There's probably nowhere to go but down.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Any way you look at it, a "C" of any color is not a good thing. Had I actually seen this on Thanksgiving and not the week after, I might have felt nauseous. Too much food, too much movie.

    It's too bad because I loved Romeo and Juliet and I mostly liked Moulin Rouge. Believe or not I still haven't seen Strictly Ballroom, which is kind of sad. The guy's made 4 movies in 16 years and I can't find the time to catch his first one?

    Anyway, I'm not going to give up on him just yet. It'll probably be years before we see him again, and by then I'll have, ahem, digested this meal.

  3. I liked the film a bit more than you did Dan, but I'll admit it has some serious narrative issues.

    At the end of the day however, it's still entertaining, and that to me in the bottom line with a film like this. I think a lot of critics who derided its length and excesses took the easy way out. As always very fine review.

  4. Fair enough, Sam. It's true - the problems it has (length, etc.) are distracting enough so that you end up overlooking any quality bits that might be in there somewhere. Just seems like most of us were too lazy to go digging for them.

  5. It's really bizarre how generic it was. The whole thing was borrowed, if not from The Wiz, then from decards of romances and/or epics. Luhrmann brought nothing to the table.

    And yeah, while watching, I thought of the sequel thing, too. Not really in those terms, but it was like, "Okay, it's over, but I'm looking at my watch and there's an hour left. Was the runtime I saw in the paper a misprint?"

  6. Yeah I don't know why he didn't have more fun with this. Do something crazy, make a weird dream sequence, anything. More and more, I'm looking at it as a missed opportunity.


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