Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman star in AUSTRALIA, directed by Baz Luhrmann for 20th Century Fox.

Australia (2008, Baz Luhrmann)

First, a message from my wife: Hugh Jackman is a hottie boom batty.

There, that public service announcement is out of the way.

Australia is actually not the worst modern three hour vanity project I’ve seen. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is much worse. Australia, mostly thanks to director Baz Luhrmann’s “Looney Tunes” influenced direction, is something of a unique film. It’s a lot like an imitation Disney cartoon–complete with Nicole Kidman’s outlandish outfits and frequent mugging at the camera in the first act and Jackman’s character not even having a name.

Luhrmann does a lot of his bad CG–enough it makes one wonder if the CG is supposed to look fake, I imagine it is–and he does his digital backdrops and he really tries for a modern Technicolor experience. Except with his four second shots, it’s hard to think of Australia, the reels of film, as an experience. The viewer certainly has one, but the film’s shockingly empty of any content.

It’s not a boring film, which is nice. At times, I was horrified with myself for sitting through it–the first fourth is full of atrocious moments–but as it neared the end, I realized it didn’t feel much like three hours. It isn’t endless torture, maybe because the beginning narration forecasts the eventual Japanese attack so it’s got to show up… presumably.

I’m not sure where in the running time the attack happens, but when it does, Australia ceases to be an inane retro-remake of They’re a Weird Mob (maybe trying to sum up a country in a filmed narrative isn’t good idea… I mean, if the Archers couldn’t do it, what chance does Baz really have) and instead becomes a remake of Pearl Harbor. Except with really awful CG and a ludicrous series of events pulling Jackman, Kidman and adopted son Brandon Walters all back together.

Walters is, besides Kidman, the perfect example of what’s wrong with Luhrmann. Walters plays a half-caste (half Aboriginal, half white). Baz casted him because the kid looks like a kewpie doll, not because he could act. I could see this kid stuck in a car window, looking soulfully out at me. Zero reason otherwise to cast the kid.

Jackman’s actually good for most of the film, even if Australia does introduce him based on the comparison between he and Clint Eastwood’s eyes. There’s the squint and the cowboy hat and maybe even some spaghetti western music. But he’s fine. Until he has to start delivering lines, in the last hour, Kidman said to him in the first twenty or thirty minutes. It’s painful to watch, really. But otherwise, it’s a decent performance. Also good is David Ngoombujarra as Jackman’s sidekick. He doesn’t have much to do, but when he does, he’s excellent. Jack Thompson, Barry Otto and Ursula Yovich are all fine too. Not good, but fine.

As for bad–well, I guess I’ll start with Ben Mendelsohn, because Luhrmann just wastes him in a lousy role. Kidman’s terrible, but in the same boring way Kidman’s usually terrible so it isn’t even interesting. But Luhrmann forces a bad performance out of David Wenham, something I didn’t think possible, with such bad writing. Wenham’s inhumanely evil character–in a film full of them–is a constant absurd eyesore. Bryan Brown’s also bad in a smaller role, but it’s a stunt casting kind of thing. It’s forgivable. The misuse of Wenham is not.

The film’s problem, besides Luhrmann’s cartoonish direction, is the script. It’s not any good, past being well-paced I suppose. It skips interesting things, focuses on boring ones and has lots of plot holes. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is good, in those four second shots, and David Hirschfelder’s music has some great moments.

I probably expected Australia to be better. I don’t know why. It’s clear from the first four minutes just what kind of mess Luhrmann has made… but it does improve throughout–the directing even. Just not Kidman and Wenham.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Baz Luhrmann; screenplay by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, based on a story by Lurhmann; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Dody Dorn and Michael McCusker; music by David Hirschfelder; production designer, Catherine Martin; produced by G. Mac Brown, Catherine Knapman and Luhrmann; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (Drover), Brandon Walters (Nullah), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George), David Ngoombujarra (Magarri) and Jacek Koman (Ivan).


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