They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Thank God.

For what genuine fun can be had watching the sort of film—such as the new epic Australia—in which the question “Is this a joke?” must be wrangled with, like a recalcitrant steer, ad nauseam?

Australia, a romance novel-like period-piece, set Down Under and acted, written and directed by a nearly all-Aussie crew, stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and is directed by Baz Luhrmann, whose previous three films (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) were retroactively dubbed “The Red Curtain Trilogy” for certain stylistic similarities. These include the use of lavish design (by Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, who also worked on Australia) and the inclusion of red curtains, which parted during the title sequences, highlighting the films’ theatrical stylization.

Though the red curtains are absent in Australia, much of Luhrmann’s signature techniques are present, including his pilfering from Western, musical and other genres, and his method of beginning a film in a comedic fashion and then morphing it into a more serious, dramatic affair by midpoint.

Unfortunately, in Australia, the only moments that are actually funny are those in which Luhrmann tries to be serious. Or is he? The film is so syrupy, stolen, soap-operatic and cringingly kitschy it’s fairly difficult to tell what Luhrmann’s intentions actually are. That is, the dialogue is cheesy, the characters cartoonish, the night scenes as artificially lit as a ¡Three Amigos! campfire scene, the insulting noble savage stereotypes ludicrous and everything—everything—eye-roll inducing—but are they these things on purpose? And if so, why?

The plot, recognizable in piecemeal from a compendium of ’40s films, goes like this: Kidman (who Luhrmann cast in Moulin Rouge! and the most expensive commercial of all time, for Chanel perfume) plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an aristocratic British woman who, during the early days of WWII, ventures to her husband’s sprawling cattle-ranch in northern Australia, only to find him recently killed. Momentarily perturbed, Lady Ashley hatches a plan to outmaneuver a sinister, monopoly-seeking cattle baron (Bryan Brown) and his murdering minion (David Wenham) from stealing her land.

She is aided by a Chinese cook named Sing Song (Wah Yuen) and a rough-of-skin but tender-of-heart handsome drover, named, conveniently, Drover, who, played by the brawny Hugh Jackman, is a sort of short-haired Fabio. Romance blossoms and, moreover, Lady Ashley develops a maternal attachment to Nullah (Brandon Walters), a boy of mixed Caucasian and Aboriginal descent, a people whom racist local authorities then called “creamies,” and who were forcibly taken from their families and put into camps in a shameful period now referred to as The Stolen Generations.

Weirder things are mixed in, too. Luhrmann, somehow, incorporates “Over the Rainbow,” as well as a mystical Aboriginal medicine man who, more often than not, is found perched on one leg like a flamingo, doing some sort of tai chi and singing a magical song about mangoes. Things rush, for an unremitting eternity of 2½ hours, toward multiple dénouements, each so predictable that one tricks oneself, via reverse-psychology, into not predicting them—the final two or three of which are set against the cinematically picturesque backdrop of the bombing of the town of Darwin by the Japanese.

It’s as awful as it sounds—so awful, in fact, one wonders if Luhrmann is engaged in some sort of deep irony that, like certain species of whales, communicates on a frequency too low for normal human comprehension. But if Luhrmann is self-conscious about his appropriations, he is so in the sort of post-ironic way that is more of a regression to, than a communication with, olden-time, colonial-era “innocence.” Things that were turning cliché or offensive in the early ’50s are not any less so for the passage of time. And going back is no way to push things forward, which, like a shark, we must, must do.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Stuart Beattie, Ronald Hardwood, Richard Flanagan and Baz Luhrmann
With Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Wah Yuen, David Gulpilil and Brandon Walters

Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14, UA DeVargas
165 min., PG-13