The Cynical Optimist – 5/12/08

Like his previous film, ”Moulin Rouge”, Baz Luhrmann’s ”Australia” is receiving wildly mixed reviews. The $130-million epic has had some critics describing it as Australia’s Gone With the Wind, while other writers would have you believe the film is burdened with thinly drawn characters and an overall lack of originality.

In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert says Luhrmann has succeeded in making an Australian ”Gone With the Wind”, “with much of that film’s lush epic beauty and some of the same awkwardness with a national legacy of racism.”

Ebert’s largely favorable review, three stars, closes with “Gone With the Wind, for all its faults and racial stereotyping, at least represented a world its makers believed in. Australia envisions a world intended largely as fable, and that robs it of some power. Still, what a gorgeous film, what strong performances, what exhilarating images and — yes, what sweeping romantic melodrama. The kind of movie that is a movie, with all that the word promises and implies.”

Meanwhile, Claudia Puig in USA Today twists similar words around, writing that the movie “tries to be a sprawling, romantic epic. Instead, it’s a melodramatic exercise in tedium. Rather than being old-fashioned or classic, it’s old-school and conventional. Instead of believable romance, it offers schmaltz and cliché.”

When I think of films like ”Gone With the Wind”, ”Casablanca” or ”The Wizard of Oz”, the word ‘classic’ loosens itself effortlessly from the cobwebbed rafters of my brain. These are films that stand out as shining examples of timeless cinematic triumphs – films that are still relevant and enjoyable even though they are a product of a different time.

I have to wonder, however, what audiences and critics would think of ”Gone With the Wind” had it come to theaters in 2008. Would they bicker over it’s 226 minute running time? Would they curl their nose and roll their eyes at thinly drawn characters or racial stereotypes? Would they point out the predictability of its romantic plot?

It’s hard to say. It’s an impossible scenario to consider, being as a film like ”Australia” is a direct product of the sweeping, epic romanticism ”Gone With the Wind ”introduced moviegoers to back in 1939. I will say this though, I completely agree with Ebert’s assertion of the film. Luhrmann has created a beautiful, absolutely stunning film that does capture some of that old-time movie making magic that is regretfully absent from today’s cineplexes.

I loved ”Australia”. The cinematography is awe-inspiring, with beautiful scenes garnished with colors that dance across the screen with a dreamlike fluidity. Is the romance familiar? Yes, of course it is. Are the characters thinly drawn and undeveloped? Perhaps, but was the doomed love of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler any different?

When I go to one of my favorite haunts here in Charlotte, Phat Burrito, and belly up to the bar for a barbecue chicken burrito, I know what it’s going to taste like. I know it’s ingredients will consist of red beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, and of course the deliciously seasoned chicken. I know it will be wrapped with care in an oversized tortilla and served with salsa.

Even before the burrito touches my lips, I know what to expect. My brain anticipates the flavors and tingles with excitement. Even though my senses can predict what it will taste like, it doesn’t take away from the pleasure of eating it.

There is something to be said for familiarity. In the way seeing an old friend brings back a flood of memories and emotions, so does experiencing the pure escapism of ”Australia”. Is it a perfect film? No. Luckily there is no such thing, or else film criticism would be a simple, by-the-books procedure. Is it worth seeing? Most certainly. It’s one of the most emotionally engaging and overall entertaining films I’ve seen in recent memory.