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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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"Australia:" Land Down Under as in Underperformer

December 1, 2008 | 11:32 am

Australia_220th Century Fox had such high hopes for "Australia," both as a commercial success and a critic's favorite -- after all, it's directed by Baz Luhrmann, a filmmaker long beloved by critics of all stripes -- that I got a call a week ago from a very high-placed Fox executive, boasting that the release of "Australia" last Friday would mark the end of The Streak. For blog newcomers, let me recap: Putting aside the animated kids' classic, "Horton Hears a Who," Fox had released 22 consecutive movies since "The Simpsons Movie" arrived in July 2007, none of which managed to score better than a mediocre 50 on Rotten Tomatoes, the web's most reliable aggregator of movie reviews.

So the Fox exec eagerly reminded me that it was only fair that with the release of "Australia," I would have to take note of the streak's end, since it was obvious that a Baz Luhrmann film would surely be a critic's delight. Well, all I can is: Barely.

For all its directorial ambition, "Australia" just squeaked into positive Rotten Tomatoes territory, scoring a 53, which, to give a little perspective, means that it got the same score as last summer's forgettable comedy "Get Smart." So the streak is over, but it's probably a Pyrrhic victory. "Australia" has bigger problems, having stumbled out of the starting gate at the box office, barely making $20 million in its first five days of release. Even the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal called the movie the weekend's "biggest box-office disappointment," saying the "lackluster" opening will make it hard for the studio to attract a larger audience in the weeks to come. The Murdoch-owned New York Post, which apparently has total freedom to tweak its owner, gleefully called the film's opening "embarrassing."

Fox can't say I'm not an admirer of the film -- it's using excerpts from my largely enthusiastic review as one of the blurbs in its newspaper ads. But the real problem with "Australia," despite its hefty budget -- $130 million plus a giant wad of marketing expenses -- is that it's the ultimate tweener. It's an epic art film. But epics need movie stars, which "Australia" lacks, and art films need great reviews, along with ardent audience buzz, to find a sizable audience. That's what has propelled recent breakout hits including "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Juno" to success -- money reviews and great word of mouth. So far, the consensus on "Australia" is that for all its bravura filmmaking, it feels naggingly unsatisfying. Clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, the movie seems like two or three historical sagas squeezed into one big package. Box Office Mojo compares "Australia's" opening with the 2003 holiday opening for "Cold Mountain," an equally ambitious historical epic -- also co-starring Nicole Kidman -- that never made it past the $95-million mark at the U.S. box office.    

At least "Cold Mountain" got an awards season boost from seven Oscar nominations (though no best picture nod). As history shows, it's almost impossible for a film with "Australia's" mediocre critical response to land a best picture nomination, which robs Fox of an important marketing tool in keeping the film afloat in a crowded marketplace. Fox execs insist that the movie will attract tons of adults in weeks to come, citing the film's weekend numbers, which went up significantly as the weekend unfolded, a signal that the film had strong word of mouth support. While acknowledging that the reviews were mixed, the studio said that "Australia" earned its best reviews from top critics, citing good reviews from Roger Ebert, Time, Newsweek, the L.A. Times and the New York Times.

In fact, the studio is so bullish that it sees "Australia" emulating the box-office performance of the equally adult-oriented "The Bucket List," which opened modestly last Christmas, but ended up making $93 million in the U.S. alone. I don't find that a persuasive comparison. "Australia" is a filmmaker epic, "The Bucket List" was a cheesy popcorn comedy propelled by a loveable movie star (Jack Nicholson). My guess is that "Australia" will find it tougher sledding over the holidays, up against plenty of adult-oriented films that will earn much stronger reviews. Still, I'm glad Fox made the movie. I've long argued that Fox should be a more filmmaker-friendly studio, and whatever you say about "Australia," it is surely a filmmaker's movie.

The only problem is that without any bankable stars in the picture ("Australia" once again proving that Kidman is many things, but not a movie star), Fox has been forced to sell it as a Baz Luhrmann film. And as all of us Baz fans know well, Luhrmann is many things, most notably a brilliant artist, but he is not a popcorn-chewing, crowd-pleasing filmmaker. He is, irony of all ironies, the poster boy for the rationale behind Fox Searchlight, Fox's specialty division, which keeps a tight lid on expenses, so it can make money selling daring films to specialized audiences.

Perhaps because Rupert Murdoch is one of Baz's biggest fans, Luhrmann had the kind of creative freedom at Fox that only Jim Cameron has enjoyed. But the postmodern sensibility that makes "Australia" such a rousing, but strangely self-conscious epic, is a sensibility that really only fits the Searchlight economic model. (Even though Fox did defray a big chunk of "Australia" expenses, thanks to Australian government tax breaks and outside equity investors.) Expect to see Fox double-down on its marketing efforts to give the movie a big boost, gambling that the film could do considerably better overseas, but you have to wonder if "Australia" will be the kind of movie the rest of the world will wholeheartedly embrace.   

Photo: Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in "Australia." Credit: James Fisher / 20th Century Fox

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