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G’day and too many Christmases
December 4, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
You’d have to go farther than Down Under to find two more photogenic faces than Nicole Kidman’s and Hugh Jackman’s in “Australia.” The wide screen seems barely adequate for their close-ups, and their romantic chemistry generates as much wattage as a PG-13 rating can hold. They’re a gorgeous pair in this vintage romance set against a big slice of Australian history in the middle of the last century.
But as it turns out, for writer-director Baz Luhrmann, the real love story is with the movies themselves. After sharing his flamboyant theatricality in “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo & Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” this time he sets his sights on movie classics that may have cast a spell over him when he was growing up in the rural outback where his father ran the local cinema.
Paying homage to everything from cattle-drive Westerns to “Gone With the Wind,” “The African Queen” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Luhrmann may have set out to pay tribute to his Australian homeland — but his heart clearly belongs to Hollywood. The resulting 2 1/2-hour epic will strike filmgoers of a certain age and wistful disposition as the kind they don’t make anymore, with its over-the-top emotions to match the grandeur of the rugged Aussie landscape.
Kidman goes into Kate Hepburn mode to play a prim English aristocrat with an iron spine. Lady Sarah Ashley ventures to Australia to wheel in a rambling husband and unload his cattle ranch before heading home again. Instead, she has to rely on her accomplished horsemanship to join the ragtag wranglers driving the herd to market in time to get a lucrative military contract for the World War II troops.
Leading the drive is “Drover” Jackman. Having just been named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive” is almost all you need to know about how he plays Australia’s answer to the Marlboro Man. He reportedly preferred making campfires and sleeping under the stars to being pampered with the crew during filming, but he’s also the kind of cowboy who sang “Oklahoma” on Broadway in an already illustrious career that includes playing “Wolverine” in the “X-men” franchise.
He and especially Kidman bring self-effacing humor to their roles, another throwback to a time when Hollywood romance was built on wit, verbal sparring, repressed longings and great expectations. A kiss before the final fadeout was as explicit as things got.
Not to get too stuck in the past, and to add another platter to Luhrmann’s cinematic smorgasbord, the sweeping tale is observed by Nulla (Brandon Walters), the movie’s young, half-aboriginal narrator. His racial plight — the half-white children are called “creamies” — adds political correctness to the colloquialisms and accent.
Then there’s his aboriginal grandfather, “King George” (David Gulpilil), a skinny, nearly naked fella who provides some spiritual shamanism in the outback and saves the day when the cliff-hanger plot twists call for it.
It’s fun to watch, but hard to shake the lingering feeling that its stars are playing movie stars, rather than characters. Apparently audiences couldn’t shake the feeling. “Australia” came in a tepid fifth at the box office; “Four Christmases” came in first.
Pairing Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, “Four Christmases” is this year’s addition to what is fast becoming a new tradition: the dysfunctional family comedy for the holidays.
The concept is novel enough: They’re a hip, hedonistic Bay Area couple with healthy aversions to marriage, responsibility or growing up. This may be because they’re the products of divorced households, and all the eccentric wreckage that come with them.
After their usual Christmas alibi fails (they always tell the inlaws they’re off doing charity work in some impoverished corner of the third world), they wind up having to cram not one, but four family Christmases into one jam-packed day.
With Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight as the far-flung parents, the situation definitely has potential. But what the writers forget is that being uncomfortable doesn’t automatically translate into funny. Actually, in real life, it usually doesn’t.
Along with the obvious problem that Reece and Vince don’t fit into the same movie frame, there’s not much holiday warmth or cheer in sight. Christmas chaos has been fertile territory for comics from Chevy Chase to Billy Bob Thornton. Reese and Vince act like they got the leftovers.
You know it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to stop whining and change their minds about families. You only wish that they — and all the rest of us — had had more fun getting there.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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