The story of a young girl, sold by her family into slavery, who rises to become the reigning geisha of her day, bears more than a small resemblance to "Cinderella," though it happens to be set in Kyoto in the 1930s and '40s. The "Cinderella" echoes, present in Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, come through clearly in Rob Marshall's ornately appointed movie of "Memoirs of a Geisha," starring Ziyi Zhang as the exotically pale-eyed Sayuri. There are nasty godmother figures, and the equivalent of an evil stepsister in Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Sayuri's bitter rival, who plots at every step to thwart her ambitions. And no fairy tale would be complete without a Prince Charming, who comes in the distinguished, handsome form of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich, kindly businessman whom Sayuri meets as a child and secretly vows to love forever.
Marshall's movie plays out, however, less like a classic fairy tale than a lurid, bitch-slapping Hollywood melodrama from the '40s, complete with overwrought histrionics, sneering villains and emphatic cigarette smoking. This may make the movie sound like more fun than it is. A sumptuously produced Prestige Picture, lusting for Oscars, it takes itself much too seriously to achieve even camp status.
"Geisha" has a lot of ground to cover--a problem for any screenwriter. It starts in 1929, when Sayuri is a child (played by Suzuka Ohgo), spans World War II and extends into postwar Japan, where American soldiers cruise the streets for a less formal mode of female companionship. Robin Swicord's overcompressed screenplay seems in a rush to get to the next plot point. Sayuri reaches the pinnacle of her profession too abruptly, and then her reign seems over before it's begun. Those who relished Golden's loving attention to detail may feel shortchanged.
There's much for the eye to feast on, nonetheless, from the beauty of Zhang and Gong to Colleen Atwood's lavish costumes and production designer John Myhre's lovely backlot fantasia of old Kyoto. But visual splendor can take you only so far. For all the wailing and crying on display, the emotions that are meant to pierce us rarely break through the surface. The two great Chinese stars are wonderful to behold, but they're working with a handicap. Not only did they have to act in English, in which neither was fluent, but in English with a Japanese accent. The movie is an aural hodgepodge. It's painful to see such a wonderful cast, which includes Michelle Yeoh as Sayuri's mentor and Koji Yakusho (the star of "Shall We Dance"), knocked off their stride by the artifice of the enterprise.
Marshall, who whipped the stage musical "Chicago" into a dazzling cinematic lather, seems to want to turn everything into a production number: there's an awful lot of breathless running down streets and hallways, but unfortunately no songs to break into at the destination. Trying too hard to grab our attention, he loses it. The art of the geisha prizes subtlety, stillness, grace. Why doesn't this movie?