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Australia

Dir: Baz Luhrmann

Rating: 1.5

Twentieth Century Fox

165 minutes

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, works best as an example to fellow filmmakers in how not to make a movie. I loved Romeo + Juliet violently wresting Shakespeare from the shriveled talons of literature and thrusting it back to its pop culture roots and Moulin Rouge’s madcap hooker-filled musical fantasy, so to find myself bored to death during much of the runtime of Australia is upsetting.

If you are an auteur, be an auteur. Australia begins with some trademark Baz Luhrmann energetic silliness as Hugh Jackman gets into a barfight and uses Nicole Kidman’s luggage as a weapon, only to reveal that they seem to be stuffed with underwear when they break open. If Baz wants to avoid his typical stylistic indulgences, a la Darren Aronofsky’s stripped-down The Wrestler, he is fully in his right. To tease the highly stylized filmmaking that we’ve come to know and love only to give us an hour and a half of cattle herding is unacceptable, especially if we don’t get a sense of authorship. I don’t care how pretty the film is.

Your film should never be as vanilla as Australia. Granted, it is obvious the film is reaching for that Gone with the Wind style of epic period filmmaking that people just don’t make anymore ever since Titanic made more money than it probably deserved. But even Titanic had the ballsy disaster sequence that, let’s be honest, only served to prove where James Cameron’s real interests lie. However, with Australia, cowboys are reduced to the real-life definition of cattle herders and the villain is never convincing outside of his portrayal as being just kind of a jerk. When he kills a man with a crocodile, it happens within a montage as an afterthought — as if Baz Luhrmann didn’t buy his own character and quickly got his one bit of evil out of the way before discerning viewers would notice. If you’re going to set a film in the outback, give me never-ending danger.

If you’re going to have other characters in your script, you better write them. Most of Australia’s 165 minutes depend on the audience caring about Kidman and whether she’ll be able to herd those poor cattle before it’s too late and, later, if she can save her adopted half-aborigine son from World War II. This would make for a fine film (given a far shorter runtime) but gives Jackman and the supporting cast of minorities precious little to do. Which brings me to a sub-rule: if you’re going to write a movie that uses racial acceptance as a theme, try not to write every single one of them as “Magical Negroes” to help the white people stay together (note: having some of your characters being literally magic complicates this statement).

And let’s please stop trivializing World War II. While Australia’s portrayal is nowhere near the offensiveness of The Notebook (hint: World War II zips by in one brief scene), Luhrmann and his screenwriters use a Japanese air raid as a plot device to separate the characters and spring them into action. If World War II suddenly impedes your story, that’s the movie, unless you’re a mad genius like my next example. Emir Kusterica’s Underground gets away with having World War II not be the sole focus of the film because he follows it up in the third act with the genocidal horror of The Yugoslav Wars. We all cannot be Kusterica, but we can certainly try.

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