If “Memoirs of a Geisha” is any indication, filmmaker Rob Marshall doesn’t know the difference between a geisha and a glass of water. As he proved with “Chicago,” Marshall is more interested in style than substance. In “Chicago,” however, the style was a hijacked and third-rate parody of Bob Fosse’s distinctive approach to cinema. But in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Marshall can’t grab from the Fosse bag of tricks. Instead, the style he knocks off seems to be the soapy and unintentionally campy melodrama perfected by Douglas Sirk. Yes, it’s time for “Imitation of a Geisha.”
Can chirpy Chiyo, the orphaned girl with “eyes the color of water” (Suzuka Ohgo as a child, Ziyi Zhang as a young adult) find her way up the social ladder from being the maid/slave of a geisha house. The “star” geisha of the house is the nasty/sexy Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is immediately jealous of Chiyo and does everything to make life awful for her. But Chiyo has a guardian angel in Mahema (Michelle Yeoh), a free-lancing do-gooder geisha who takes Chiyo under her wing (or kimono-covered arms) to make her the superstar of the geisha world. However, something called World War II gets in the way of the fun.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” earned some controversy for casting Chinese actresses in the leading roles. The top Japanese role goes to Ken Watanabe, who plays “The Chairman” (an industrialist who is Mahema’s patron and who has the eye for Chiyo). But it doesn’t really matter who is playing the roles, since this “Memoirs of a Geisha” is such a bowl of gruel that even Toshiro Mifune in drag couldn’t breathe life into it. Robin Swicord and Doug Wright’s simplistic screenplay boils down the genuine tragedy and emotion of the Arthur Golden novel into a half-dimensional shadow play. There is never a single moment here where you believe real people with real issues are on the screen. Some amusement can be found in the film’s occasional lapses into anachronism, most notably when Chiyo performs a Cirque du Soleil-style dance which no self-respecting geisha would ever dream of doing.
To its credit, the film’s costume design is stunning. But unless you have a kimono fetish, there’s no reason to pay a good dollar (or a yen, for that matter) on this junk.