Miracles Are Cheap

Reviews of the latest films.
May 19 2001 12:00 AM

Miracles Are Cheap

Moulin Rouge is all empty excess; Startup.com documents the Internet bust; A Knight's Tale kicks mummy butt. 

Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
20th Century Fox

Startup.com
Directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
Artisan Entertainment

A Knight's Tale
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Columbia Pictures

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In the first few moments of Moulin Rouge, the writer-director, Baz Luhrmann, pulls off a cinematic coup—a miracle. He presents a scratchy, black-and-white Paris vista that might have been lifted from a silent film; then he moves his camera into that washed-out cityscape, whooshing along the narrow, winding streets of Montmartre (circa 1900) and through the window of a garret—where his protagonist, Christian (Ewan McGregor), sits typing a memoir of his doomed affair with a beautiful Moulin Rouge courtesan called Satine (Nicole Kidman). You might still be laughing in amazement at this bit of design (and computer) wizardry—this flying-carpet ride into history—when the camera reverse-whooshes back to its opening vista, pivots, then forward-whooshes to a train pulling into a station. Suddenly, there's a whole lotta whooshing goin' on.

A whole lotta fancy syntax, too. The camera picks up a younger Christian as he strolls into a cityscape that's half-sepia, half-Technicolor, then whooshes ahead to the riotously colorful Moulin Rouge, the nightclub/cabaret where, as Christian puts it, "the whirling, decadent rich and powerful came to play with the beautiful creatures of the underworld." The montage that follows is as whirling and decadent as you could ask for: painted faces, kicking heels, jiggling backsides, a leering emcee (Jim Broadbent), even a capering dwarf. Flanked by Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his scampering band of bohemians, Christian downs absinthe, watches a green Tinkerbell swirl around the room warbling "The hills are alive!" from the Sound of Music, then pushes his way into the throbbing hordes as they disco-dance to "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?" In celebration, hats are thrown as high as the moon, which also croons a verse or two. Campy anachronisms mingle with antiquated melodrama: Satine descends from the ceiling on a swing, sings a medley of "Material Girl" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," then plunges to earth in a consumptive 19th-century swoon. Half an hour into Moulin Rouge, all memory of that magical opening shot has been obliterated. In this kind of fractured, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pastiche, miracles come fast and cheap.

Baz Luhrmann is now the king of the Miracles Are Cheap genre, just edging out Stephen Sommers (The Mummy Returns) and Oliver Stone (anything). It's an aesthetic that's intended to seem generous (a thousand climaxes for the price of one) but ends up leaving you starved for a single moment of unhyped emotion. You can barely see the characters for Luhrmann screaming: Love me! Love my virtuosity! He's like one of those megalomaniacs who wants to do everything in bed—to the point of getting annoyed when you don't oooh and ahhh on cue. (You want to yell: "Who cares about your damned technique? How about looking at me?") It's meaningless to criticize Moulin Rouge for being florid, campy, and excessive since Luhrmann aspires to make his audience drunk on florid, campy excess. The real problem isn't overload but emptiness: The audience stays stone-cold sober. (This is the only time I've been to a movie where the ringing of someone's cell phone wasn't an intrusion. The sound of a human voice in conversation seemed a godsend.)

My brilliant colleague A.O. Scott has described MoulinRouge in the New York Times as a cinematic "folly" in the tradition of Intolerance (1916), Napoleon (1920), many Orson Welles pictures, 1900 (1976), Apocalypse Now (1979), Heaven's Gate (1980)—movies over-intoxicated on the possibilities of the medium. (Read Pauline Kael on 1900 for the most succinct tribute to this calamitous but somehow inspiring subgenre.) I think Scott is being way too generous. Follies are movies that get away from their (great) directors, whereas Moulin Rouge is perfectly controlled—it's the movie that Luhrmann set out to make. The canvas might be busy but it's not especially big, and the ideas (the theme is the power of love) are so minuscule they'd have trouble filling a Hallmark card. Luhrmann's historic achievement is to synthesize the most vulgar kitsch of three centuries, from the bombast of gaslight melodrama to the digitized thrill rides of 21st-century cyber-spectacles—and somehow leave out all the fun. Imagine La Traviata (1967) directed by Oliver Stone, with a dash of Cabaret (1972) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). No, better not. Your head might explode.

Luhrmann has said that he hopes Moulin Rouge will "bring back the movie musical"—but in the name of what? Assault and battery? The director takes his dancing cues from Bob Fosse, who—at least in Cabaret—managed to find a way of editing that extended his twitch-and-slink choreography so that the dance gesture fused with the cinematic gesture. Luhrmann's musical numbers are just a hash of close-ups and gyrating limbs, with no regard for the way bodies move through space. It's not that montage has no place in movie musicals— it's that Luhrmann cares less about showing you how his dancers dance than how he dances. 

The performers? Merely props, but Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor do act and sing their hearts out. The movie actually benefits from Kidman's recent marital woes: You can project a certain tremulous vulnerability onto her normally robotic sex-kitten act, and her squeezed waist and toned, chalky thighs can be interpreted as signs of romantic yearning instead of a supermodel's steely obsession with fitness. But will anyone buy this role? This must be the only celebration of bohemianism that revolves around whether the heroine—a renowned prostitute—will lose her virtue to a villainous duke (Richard Roxburgh, who looks like David Spade with whiskers), who does everything but tie her to the railroad tracks. The climax borrows from Titanic (1999), with the jealous rich guy's manservant chasing the hero around and shooting at him. Except Moulin Rouge ends with the audience sinking.

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It's sad to think that nowadays combining the terms "startup" and "dot-com" produces a sort of oxymoron—a phrase that spontaneously combusts, leaving behind only cackles and moans. That's the bitter edge that filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim bring to their documentary Startup.com, which purports to tell the story of two high-school chums who started what looked, very briefly, like a billion-dollar Internet property (govWorks.com) before it succumbed to market forces and an uncontrollable burn rate.

This story has already been told hundreds of times in articles and books but never in a feature-length movie, and there's something to be learned just from being in the room with these people—in this case with Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, the can-do, macho front-man, and Tom Herman, the gracelessly self-encased (but likable) techie who handles most of the day-to-day operations. Hegedus and Noujaim, who trailed their protagonists for more than a year, have caught the buzz of 1999 and early 2000. As Kaleil and Tom go about raising millions from venture capitalists and fantasizing about the billions to come, Startup.com acquires the fascination of another Titanic retelling—a movie in which you chew your popcorn and wait almost gleefully for the iceberg that will take these overweeners down. The knowledge that some people we know (and maybe even some of us) are going down with the same ship only adds to the masochistic, fin-de-siècle fun. You're meant to emerge as if from an extended bender asking, "What were we thinking???"

The film is a pretty good fly-on-the-wall document, full of vapid corporate pep rallies, buoyant pitches, and a sense of capitalism drifting into a New Agey delusion of connectedness, of oneness. These people throwing around these unimaginable sums of money are kids. But Startup.com also suffers from an annoying lack of context: A lot of the data is simply missing. What was that iceberg, anyway? Did the site itself—which sought to connect citizens to municipal-government services—stink? Did the robbery of govWorks.com's offices toward the end of the picture end up hurting the company? (There's no follow-up.) Why doesn't the movie mention that the co-CEO of the rival ezgov.com—seen briefly in the movie—was tragically killed in a fire a few days after govWorks.com filed for Chapter 11?

Hegedus and Noujaim provide a clear view of the friendship's disintegration, and it's a shock when Kaleil sends security to remove his old pal from the building. But the decision to confine themselves to Kaleil's and Tom's perspectives (back together in a new venture, they'll reportedly receive a percentage of the film's profits) means we rarely get to see them through the eyes of their employees or investors—many of whom have made their displeasure known in 40-plus (and counting) pages of posts at fuckedcompany.com. The documentary camera confers a lot of glamour, and some people are finding it difficult to live with the idea that Kaleil could put his employees through hell, lose $60 million of other people's money, and wind up a movie star.

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Along with the news of mammoth grosses for the excruciatingly witless The Mummy Returns, last week's e-mail brought an onslaught of expletive-laced responses to my last column, the pithiest of which reads: "Movies are about having FUN! Why don't you critics understand that we go to movies to FORGET! about the real world and enjoy a FANTASY! you F---ING IDIOT!" How lucky that A Knight's Tale offers ready proof that it's possible to see a mega-budget escapist adventure and have both FUN! and TASTE! Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the movie is a cheekily anachronistic medieval jousting melodrama starring golden-haired heartthrob Heath Ledger and a troupe of rowdy young Brits. It's not a work of soaring imagination: At times, it seems as casual as an Elvis Presley flick like Clambake (1967) or Speedway (1968)—the ones in which the unaffected hero competes against some sneering rich boy for both a trophy and a trophy babe. But you might find yourself smiling and laughing all the way through it, relieved to be enjoying an old-style saga that doesn't just barrel from climax to climax or get righteous by killing off kids. A Knight's Tale is simply a jolly good (k)night out. 

Ledger plays William Thatcher, a servant to a nobleman who wanders Europe competing in successive jousts, much like someone on today's pro wrestling circuit. That's not an idle comparison since Helgeland baldly jettisons period ambience in the credit sequence by having his 14th-century crowd beating in time to the stadium anthem, "We Will Rock You." By then, William's master has suddenly expired; and rather than forfeit the match, the young man has convinced his fellow squires, the plump Roland (Mark Addy) and red-haired Wat (Alan Tudyk), to let him stand in for the dead knight. It's a scam with potential consequences since a) only noblemen are permitted to joust, and b) William has never actually done so.

What follows has one foot in the "Go for It" genre and one in the world of impersonation farce, and it's a clever, larky combination. Despite his lack of technique, William begins to win matches on guts alone, and before long he has added to his entourage a bonny female blacksmith, Kate (Laura Fraser), and the budding author Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany)—first encountered trudging naked through the forest, stripped of his clothes by creditors about to return for his birthday suit. Eager to pay off his gambling debts, young Chaucer concocts the fake "patents" that allow William to compete as "Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein" and the actor Bettany to stop the show with a series of hilariously hyperbolic orations in which he extols the deeds of the bogus knight to increasingly star-struck audiences. The most adoring fan of all is soon the beauteous Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), whom William spies in a crowd and pursues on horseback into a cathedral, where she later mock-complains to the Rouen bishop entrusted with her purity: "Why, God, did you curse me with this face?" William's rival for both Jocelyn and the title of world's greatest jouster is the chiseled and chiseling Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), whose eyes blaze green through his knightly visor—he's palpably lusting to prove himself the better man.

There's a nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone to some of the merry band's antics, and the rock songs under the action call too much attention to themselves. (The resourceful composer, Carter Burwell, could probably have incorporated an electric guitar into his medieval airs without shattering the mood so violently.) But Helgeland, who co-wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and wrote the underrated ConspiracyTheory (1997), manages to parody chivalric conventions without fatally undermining them. (Perhaps he took his cue from the actual Chaucer.) The bouts themselves, though largely bloodless, feel real enough (the explosion of splinters and Dolbyized whacks make you jump); and the director squeezes genuine anguish from William's flashback to the day when his wearily impoverished father entrusted his upbringing to a nobleman in hopes the boy could "change his stars" (although bringing Dad back as a tremulous blind man is maybe pushing it). I loved the farcical energy of the all-Brit supporting cast; the nod to Cyrano de Bergerac when our artless hero attempts to contrive a love letter; the occasional Monty Pythonesque aside ("I am a summoner," explains one man. "I am called 'Simon the Summoner' "); and the over-the-top "Sir Ulrich" intros by Chaucer, especially the one that climaxes, "We walk in the garden of his turpulence!!!"—a claim met with firm silence and then Roland's tentative "Yeah!" (I had to check the dictionary to make sure "turpulence" wasn't a real word—it sounds terrific.)

It's hard to say if Heath Ledger will be the next dreamboat superstar, but he makes a fine straight man for all these boisterous clowns, and you never catch him preening unless he's preening in character. Less happy is the casting of Shannyn Sossamon, who's dead-voiced and coiffed like an anorexic model, with plumes that would make Cecil Beaton blush. It's possible that Helgeland goofed by making the Scottish blacksmith so madly attractive; I kept waiting for William to realize that his destiny lay instead with the saucy, dark-eyed Laura Fraser. Then again, we Mary Ann guys never do get the fuss about the Gingers.

A Knight's Tale made me feel in touch with mainstream entertainment again, but I still can't shake the tone of those e-mails for my Mummy Returns review. I'd need a degree in both sociology and psychology to make sense of the one that concludes, "I only wish harm to you and your family," followed by the postscript, "GET A LIFE!" It seems to me that wishing someone's loved ones harm on the basis of a movie review (of The Mummy Returns!) is the most vivid proof of an absent life imaginable. Why do people who've "escaped" into certain kinds of fantasies return with the urge to hurt the ones who didn't share their fun?

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