Ambitious ‘Australia’ reaches a bit too far, loses momentum

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Tuesday, November 25, 2008 2:37pm
  • Life

Well, the title doesn’t cheat. “Australia” boasts two of Down Under’s biggest stars, is directed by the zaniest film stylist in Oz, and makes maximum use of the continent’s vast resources.

In fact, the movie’s sweeping ambitions eventually trip it up. It aims big, and it falls far.

Set in the waning months of the 1930s, “Australia” begins with a scenario so old you can see dust flying off it. Straight-laced English lady Nicole Kidman comes to the Australian outback in order to arrange the sale of her husband’s cattle ranch.

A rough-hewn Aussie cowboy, played by Hugh Jackman, is her guide. In some 1940s movie, these roles would be played by Greer Garson and Clark Gable, though that imaginary film would no doubt be less overblown than this one.

However, for a while, “Australia” is fun precisely because it’s overblown. Director Baz Luhrmann, who began his career with the lovely “Strictly Ballroom” and quickly got crazy with “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” plays everything in broad brushstrokes, staging entire sequences in campy quotation marks.

Jackman plays the untamable renegade who’s just ripe for settling down; Kidman is a snob who will inevitably prove herself in the saddle. This is all going to go by the numbers, so Lurhmann assumes you’ll be willing to settle in and enjoy the 165-minute-long spectacle.

First, there’s the business of gettin’ the cattle from ranch to port, in defiance of the sabotaging efforts of a cattle rival (Bryan Brown) and his unbelievably loathsome henchman (David Wenham, who scored in “Return of the King” and “300”). Wenham’s role seems to be conceived on the principle that Billy Zane’s villain in “Titanic” was just a little too subtle.

After dispatching the cattle-drive section in reasonably enjoyable fashion, the film ranges across a domestic interlude and the prelude to World War II. Just when you think the action might be wrapping up, the Japanese attack.

Luhrmann’s goal is to cram as much as he can into one picture, like a kangaroo stuffing its pouch. He takes on racism against Aboriginal people, and he’s got virtually every recognizable Australian character actor popping up, sometimes just for a moment: Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, David Gulpilil.

There’s also a running theme involving “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is not one of Luhrmann’s better ideas. But when anything goes, well, everything goes.

Kidman plays it in an agreeably 1940s style, and Jackman takes his shirt off a lot. But whatever movie-star oomph they summon isn’t enough to save this goofy throwback, a movie made for an audience that no longer exists.

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