Goofy. Corny. Often cheesy as you could possibly imagine. All those words could just as easily apply to Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" as they could in my book to the movie he set out to emulate, "Gone With the Wind." And in their own unique ways, they're both also often great.
With Luhrmann's flick, however, it takes more than a little while to get there. The first 20 minutes or so, necessary to set up all the story that Luhrmann wants to bite into here, is just about unwatchable. The fish-out-of-water jokes with Nicole Kidman are clearly the point but are just the worst kind of forced humor, and Hugh Jackman fares poorly in this intro too. You might be thinking "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.", but you'll be seeing and hearing something that just misses that mark by miles.
Once the cattle drive that makes up the first hour or so of "Australia" gets going, however, Luhrmann comes surprisingly close to creating just what he set out to do: Make the kind of old-fashioned, grand adventure we just don't get to see any more (and at a cost of $130 million and 165 minutes, we may never again!) Kidman and Jackman never quite gel enough to achieve the epic romance he was clearly going for, and the cliches are piled on without pause or shame, but it's still a rousing ride complete with a stampede that ends at the edge of a cliff (did I mention cliches?)
As this first chapter comes to a close we hit the first point where Luhrmann could have learned from "Gone With the Wind," at least when I saw the most recent re-release in the theater: Please use an intermission. As he panned out across the grand vistas of Oz, I was sure he was going to give my bladder a break, but alas it was not to be.
And if he were inclined to choose just one story line, it also could have been the place to end an entertaining if slight little flick, but Luhrmann has no interest in that here; on top of the cattle trade, he adds the bombing of Australia in World War II and, of course, Luhrmann being Luhrmann, the epic love story. You might be thinking that sounds like more than a bit much, but I can promise that once it got started I was never bored (and would have never looked at my watch if I ever bothered to wear one.)
Now, don't get me wrong. By the time he gets to the war in the third (at least) chapter, it's a rather sanitized vision of conflict. He makes the bombing of Darwin, Australia, simply a backdrop to explore his favorite themes of the joys of music and the power of love ("The Wizard of Oz" and, in particular, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" play a prominent and charming enough role here that I was able to forgive the anachronistic fact that the movie probably didn't arrive in Oz until at least a year after this flick was set.) And as cheesy as all that sounds, it's not "Moulin Rouge" on the battlefield, but it's never "Pearl Harbor" either.
I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but what made this last bit just work for me was the young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters. He's the kind of cute kid with a cache of catch phrases (expect a lot of talk about "cheeky bulls") which I normally just can't stand, but I guess he and Mr. Luhrmann just caught me with all my cynicism in check. The kid's just great, as is David Gulpilil as his Aboriginal grandfather King George.
And that, I think, sums up in a nutshell just why I liked "Australia" so much. In a fall season that's been devoid of both movies for adults (at least in the wide-release realm where I dwell) and completely uncynical flicks, Luhrmann manages to deliver on both fronts, so check it out if you're in the mood for that kind of thing. In six days I'm planning to hit Atlanta for Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" and will hopefully find another charmer to really get fall rolling right.