‘Elvis’ can’t even impersonate a good movie
Director Baz Luhrmann has done something truly impressive: make six films, each one worse than the last. After “The Great Gatsby” fiasco, he teetered on the edge of infamy and now Luhrmann’s done something truly appalling with “Elvis.” Austin Butler won the job as Mr. Presley and he’s a decent Elvis impersonator, but you could find his equal any night wandering around off-Strip in search of the finest bow-lipped lounge lizard in Vegas.
The film is over two and a half hours long, and audiences will use much of that time trying to grasp what is happening with Tom Hanks’s accent as Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. It’s a greasy amalgam of Southern Dutch and Western Virginia influences that sounds bizarre every time the Colonel’s mouth opens, which is often—the whole story is told in voiceover from his deathbed. As you watch this fat man opine, appreciate the work done by the film’s jowl makeup artists, who pushed themselves to the absolute limit with the Colonel’s capacious chins.
He becomes the multimillionaire manager of a superstar but at heart Parker is a salesman on the carnival midway. He sells “I Love Elvis” buttons and he sells “I Hate Elvis” buttons. He has Elvis do a video for “Hound Dog” crooning alongside an actual basset hound. He makes shadowy business deals with mobsters while Elvis sings “Suspicious Minds” on stage. The film repeats and repeats that the Colonel is a master of the art of the “snow job,” the ability to trick rubes into the Big Top….but people did not have to be snowed by Elvis—they just needed to see him move his hips and they lost their minds.
Across the entire runtime, we don’t hear a single Elvis track played in its entirety. We get zero insight into the King of Rock and Roll’s creative process, beyond the fact that he seemed fond of stealing music made by Black people. There are elements of John Leguizamo’s Tybalt from “Romeo + Juliet” in Butler’s fashion choices and self-seriousness, but we never learn why, even before he had any money, Elvis chose to dress, sing and sigh the way he does.
Elvis hardly benefits from the pale depictions of the most important people in his life: his mother (Helen Thomson), father (Richard Roxburgh), and wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). The most grating error is his non-relationship with Priscilla. When she finally leaves him, she asks, “Do you even remember the last time we laughed together?” It definitely never happens in this film.
“Elvis” is assembled with seemingly intentional incoherence, like Luhrmann loosed a child in the editing bay and let him mash every button. But the film also suffers from unintentional incompetence, as when we see the giant “E” and the “L” being placed on the International Hotel marquee twice in a row. Other failed attempts at pop fun include comic book panels, animated newsreels, and a busy montage that speeds through the boring middle years of Elvis’s career.
Luhrmann does everything artificially—Graceland is CGI, the pink Cadillac is CGI, even a shot of a private plane on a tarmac requires heavy effects work. Butler looks insane throughout, painted like a dime store harlot, and yet he’s much less ridiculous than Hanks with his Santa Claus pillow stuffed under his shirt. There is a complete sense of unreality about the film, which was shot in Australia—it never looks or feels like Memphis or Las Vegas and might as well have been shot in the makeup artist’s trailer.
Luhrmann constantly fakes documentary footage because of course we would rather just see the real Elvis, a gorgeous and incendiary performer, whose talents so far outpace this dross that you can only feel shame that the film was even released.
“Elvis” is utter trash but, despite the same being true of “House of Gucci,” many will still feel compelled to rubberneck at some trainwreck cinema. In the end, you’re left with one question: Is Luhrmann having a mental breakdown or am I? Although we never see Elvis eat a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich, Butler dons Hanks’s fat suit in the closing passages. If nothing else, the overstuffed film duplicates the sense that you might be on the verge of suffering a massive coronary and dying on your bathroom floor.