Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, based on Arthur Golden's novel, will surely give a lot of people an opportunity to round up the usual adjectives: elegant, sumptuous, exotic, opulent, [your adjective here]. In fact, Marshall's second film -- after his vivacious Chicago -- never rises past lush Hollywood hokum. "A story like mine should never be told," says the narrator and central character, Sayuri, the eponymous geisha who looks back solemnly on her life, and by the time she's done, you'll agree.
Memoirs of a Geisha opens in 1929, with Sayuri and her sister sold into servitude by their parents. The girls are separated, and Sayuri ends up at the town's finest "house" when the Madame (Michelle Yeoh) sees something promising in her eyes. She's a feisty child, and she takes a while to tame. But she eventually dons the mantle of a geisha: not a courtesan or a wife, but a "moving work of art," selling her skill and repartee -- and igniting jealousies along the way. (Yes, there's a girlfight, and in a room with candles, so guess what happens.)
This would all be enough for any movie. But while wandering around town one day, 9-year-old Sayuri encounters The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy man who buys her a treat, gives her some coins, and tells her that "none of us finds as much kindness in this life as we should." So the smitten Sayuri devotes her life to finding him again, and when she does, she's old enough to -- well, she's old enough. She's also desired by The Chairman's business partner, who saved The Chairman's life in Manchuria, so he cannot compete against his friend for Sayuri (played as an adult by Ziyi Zhang).
Marshall films his movie gorgeously, although his plot-driven camera is so busy that you never have time to appreciate the film's historic recreations. We get a few glimpses of culture, and we watch Sayuri learn to walk, talk, demur and allure. But the story here is cliché upon cliché, and geisha life is "mysterious" only because the movie doesn't tell us much about it. This is exoticism for the masses, a matter of either poor adaptation or the inevitable consequence of a book about geishas written by an Anglo man (in fact, a Bostonian!).
The actors are all quite fine, especially Yeoh as a cagey Madame, Li Gong as Sayuri's older rival, and Suzuka Ohgo as the plucky young Sayuri, who's as supporting-Oscar worthy as child Oscar-winners Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin. But Marshall's film is never palpable: It limps along with the what-will-happen-next quality of a melodrama, burying its dramatic connections in cinematic brio. "A geisha is an artist of the floating world," we learn. "She dances, she sings, she does whatever you want. The rest is secret." OK, then. I promise not to tell anyone about Memoirs of a Geisha.