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The center holds amidst all the razzle-dazzle and razzmatazz of Baz Luhrmann‘s endlessly extravagant screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s imperishable The Great Gatsby.
As is inevitable with the Australian showman, who’s never met a scene he didn’t think could be improved by more music, costumes, extras and camera tricks, this enormous production begins by being over-the-top and moves on from there. But, given the immoderate lifestyle of the title character, this approach is not exactly inappropriate, even if it is at sharp odds with the refined nature of the author’s prose. Although the dramatic challenges posed by the character of narrator Nick Carraway remain problematic, the cast is first-rate, the ambiance and story provide a measure of intoxication and, most importantly, the core thematic concerns pertaining to the American dream, self-reinvention and love lost, regained and lost again are tenaciously addressed.
Set to open the Cannes Film Festival on May 15, five days after its U.S. theatrical bow, the Warner Bros. release stands to receive the full range of critical responses and is backed by an unstinting promotional push to spark big openings, which are far from assured. Its ultimate box office fate, though, will be determined by whether or not the film catches on with younger audiences; it’ll be a matter of the zeitgeist.
At the very least, Luhrmann must be given credit for delivering a real interpretation of the famous 1925 novel, something not seriously attempted by the previous two big screen adaptations (there was a now-lost 1926 silent version). Paramount’s long-elusive 1949 release, directed by Elliott Nugent, suffered from threadbare production values and uneven performances but Alan Ladd was a terrific Gatsby. The same studio’s second attempt, in 1974, felt suffocating and stillborn; it had the wrong director in Jack Clayton, and Robert Redford was opaque in the title role. A 2000 television adaptation did not make a significant impression.
For many, the thought of Luhrmann tarting up such a revered classic with 3-D, anachronistic Jay Z and Beyonce music, techno-spiced party scenes and Australian locations was sacrilegious, if not criminal. Perhaps even fans of what the director did with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! might have wondered if he was the right guy to take on the work most often proposed as The Great American Novel.
But no matter how frenzied and elaborate and sometimes distracting his technique may be, Luhrmann’s personal connection and commitment to the material remains palpable, which makes for a film that, most of the time, feels vibrantly alive while remaining quite faithful to the spirit, if not the letter or the tone, of its source.
It begins gently, in patchy black-and-white that, accompanied by somber music, turns into a depth-enhancing color 3-D frame that provides an equivalent for Luhrmann’s previous red curtains and at length gives way to the famous green light at the end of Daisy’s pier. Curiously, we are introduced to Nick (Tobey Maguire) as a patient in a sanitarium, where he begins to tell a doctor (Jack Thompson) the story of what happened during the summer of 1922.
Luhrmann’s cultural collisions and dislocations then commence as a synthesis of archival footage and CGI (some of which looks to feature the Empire State Building and other yet-to-be-built skyscrapers a decade before their time, and one shot featuring an unlikely copy of James Joyce‘s Ulysses, which had only just been published in Paris) inflected on the track by modern music, all to the purpose of evoking the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald did so much to name and popularize. A polite lad of modest means trying to find a toehold on Wall Street, Nick was at Yale with rich bruiser Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and has taken a little house in West Egg, Long Island, right across the bay from Tom and his wife, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and in the shadow of the ostentatious mansion owned by the elusive Jay Gatsby.
Everybody from party girls to politicians comes to Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where the booze flows and the music plays and the carousing goes on all night. But no one ever sees the host, whose wealth is surpassed only by his mysteriousness. No one knows where he or his money came from but, during the nocturnal bacchanals, no one much cares.
Luhrmann and his ever-essential design collaborator (and co-producer and wife) Catherine Martin always seem extra-stimulated by such scenes, which involve hundreds of ornate costumes, constant movement and music, which here imposes blends as unlikely as hip hop and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Whether you can abide some of the specific musical choices or not, the way Luhrmann and his music editors mix and match wildly disparate source material is ballsy and impressive; the operating principle is mood and emotion, with a surprise element that can be jarring and/or inspired.
In time-honored dramatic fashion, Gatsby’s entrance is delayed for a half-hour and, when the moment comes, there’s something in the way it’s shot combined with the self-possessed I-own-the-world smile on Leonardo DiCaprio‘s face that reminds of the first time you see the young Charles Foster Kane in an earlier film about a fellow with more money than he knows what to do with. This moment and, even more so, in the superb compositions and cutting of Gatsby’s death, show how classically precise Luhrmann can be when he wants to be. Throughout, he photographs DiCaprio the way a movie star used to be shot — glamorously and admiringly, taking full advantage of the charismatic attributes with which only the anointed few are blessed.
Brandishing his favorite phrase, “Old sport,” as well as a slightly affected accent no doubt carefully cultivated to disguise his origins, Gatsby befriends the innocent Nick, whom he asks to arrange a rendezvous with Daisy, his sweetheart from five years earlier when he was a soldier off to Europe and the battlefront. Having already been taken into New York by Tom and his mistress, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), for a debauched afternoon, Nick now accompanies Gatsby for lunch at a mixed-race speakeasy with notorious gambling associate Meyer Wolfshiem (curiously impersonated by Indian cinema star Amitabh Bachchan).
Once Gatsby and Daisy reunite, nearly an hour in, the film settles down a bit to focus on Gatsby’s sincere effort to recapture the girl who got away, who, when he went to war, married rich boy Tom. Gatsby wants to believe they can rewind the clock to the moment when they fell in love, to the purity of what they once had. “If I could just get back to the start,” he says, choosing to ignore Nick’s warning that, “You can’t repeat the past.”
They do try, organizing a nervous lunch to break the news to Tom, then heading into Manhattan on a sweltering afternoon where, in room at the Plaza, everyone’s truths come tumbling out, followed by tragedy on the road back and, ultimately, in Gatsby’s pool. The precipitating automobile accident is perhaps too sketchily portrayed for full impact, and the final stretch is slowed by too much commentary by Nick, who has become a bit of a bore by now.
Narrator/observer characters like Nick, or Stingo in Sophie’s Choice, are almost always uncomfortable fits onscreen, especially when they’re far more bland and naive than everyone else around them but still prone to making assessments and judgments about people actually living life rather than standing to the side of it. This is exacerbated here by an element of hero worship towards Gatsby that distorts the more wistful, ambivalent attitude conveyed in the book’s final pages. Maguire’s slightly aging boyishness has become tiresome by the film’s second half and a reduction of Nick’s concluding commentary would have helped.
By contrast, we don’t see enough of Daisy’s best friend, the sporty, haughty Jordan Baker, who epitomizes the sort of modern 20th-century woman who has just arrived, newly hatched, in the world and will take from it what she pleases. Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who, with her towering slim build, black hair and pool-like blue eyes resembles an elongated Zooey Deschanel, is terrific as far as the part goes, but after a few prominent scenes up front, the character recedes.
After a number of roles which, however well acted, may not have been comfortably in his wheelhouse, DiCaprio looks and feels just right as Gatsby; the glamor and allure as at one with his film star persona, he’s sufficiently savvy to convince as a successful bootlegger but still young enough to recapture the hopes and innocence of youth.
Daisy is a difficult character for any actress to embody to everyone’s satisfaction because she’s a woman onto whom the reader tends to project one’s own ideal. Accordingly, viewers will debate whether or not Mulligan has the beauty, the bearing, the dream qualities desired for the part, but she lucidly portrays the desperate tear Daisy feels between her unquestionable love for Gatsby and fear of her husband. Edgerton is excellent as the proud, entitled and seething bully Tom.
Opulence defines the production values, led by Martin’s sets and costumes. As for the use of 3-D by Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan, it is probably the most naturalistic aspect of the film; only rarely do you notice it in a pronounced way and yet it really does add something to the experience, drawing you in as if escorting you through a series of opening gates, doors and emotional states.
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