The Great Gatsby
Director : Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay : Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim)
At one point in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, the titular millionaire asks without a hint of irony, “You think it’s too much?” as he surveys a room that he has literally filled to the ceiling with flowers in a desperate attempt to impress his lost love, although he could very well be asking about the film itself. Is it too much? Probably, but that’s how Luhrmann rolls, take it or leave it. It isn’t hard to see why he would be drawn to a cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel. Set in the nouveau riche suburbs of New York City at the swinging height of the Jazz Era, Fitzgerald’s perennial high school reading list mainstay is nothing if not a highly romanticized cautionary tale about excess, and if there are two things that Luhrmann loves, it’s romance and excess.
His version of The Great Gatsby, which sticks fairly close to the book but clearly marks itself as a product of the modern entertainment era with its vast digital backdrops and showy use of 3D, pulls together bits and pieces from his previous films, stitches them together, and coats them with a glossy sheen of razzle-dazzle (he establishes his aesthetic approach in the film’s opening moments, as scratchy, grainy silent-film-era black-and-white stock gradually becomes slick, full-color, and multidimensional). Fitzgerald purists will be understandably appalled at the way Luhrmann has bent the material to his own gleefully postmodern devices, and even if it’s arguably a mess, it is at least a rakishly entertaining one.
For those slept through sophomore English in high school, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a recent Yale graduate who moves into a small cottage on Long Island with dreams of making it rich on Wall Street. The year is 1922, and as Carraway puts it, “The tempo of the city had changed. The buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper.” That essentially summarizes the film’s opening act, as Luhrmann takes Carraway’s words as license to go for broke in conveying the wild hedonism of the Jazz Era with the kind of abandon that Cecil B. DeMille could only dream of. His camera swoops and dives through the concrete valleys of New York City, eventually finding its way to the palatial mansion of Nick’s next-door neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws wild all-night parties every week that are the toast of New York. Luhrmann stages these bacchanals like outtakes from his mash-up musical Moulin Rouge! (2001), packed with circus-ready choreography and scored to the temporally disjunctive modern sounds of Jay-Z (who also co-produced the film), Beyoncé, André 3000, and will-i-am.
However, the parties are just a front, as Gatsby throws them for the sole purpose of luring to his doorstep one Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), his lost love from five years earlier who also happens to be Nick’s cousin. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a Yale buddy of Nick’s who comes from old money and feels entitled to his various extramarital affairs, including one in which he is currently engaged with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the high-voiced wife of an auto mechanic (George Wilson) whose shop is in the “the valley of ashes,” an industrial dumping ground that sits between Long Island and New York City and therefore must be symbolically and literally navigated every time the characters go anywhere.
As The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale, it isn’t giving too much away to suggest that tragedy lurks around the corner, which along with romance and excess is Luhrmann’s other favorite cinematic preoccupation (with the exception of his most recent film, 2008’s would-be epic Australia, all of his love stories end with someone dying). For all of his visual bombast and lack of convention, Luhrmann is often at his best when he dials down the noise and focuses on the characters, especially the ones who are in the midst of falling on love. The greatest moments in his films tend to involve characters seeing each other for the first time—Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo spying Claire Danes’s Juliet through a fish tank in Romeo + Juliet (1996), Ewan McGregor captivated by his initial encounter with Nicole Kidman’s radiant eroticism in Moulin Rouge!, Hugh Jackman and Kidman’s animosity melting into mutual attraction in Australia. It’s enough to make you wonder what would happen if he ever tried to make a film that wasn’t constantly trying to overwhelm you.
Luhrmann’s sense of intense romantic intrigue both elevates his Gatsby and hobbles it. Once Gatsby manages to reunite with Daisy, their romance is rekindled and they spend a great deal of time gazing into each other’s eyes and whispering secrets and endearments to which we are not privy. This helps to make their romance even more mythic—whatever they are saying, it is only for them—but it also denies us intimacy with the characters, which keeps Daisy in particular at some remove. Carey Mulligan is perfectly cast in terms of her look, but her character has little to do and even less to say, which makes it difficult to understand why Gatsby, whose balance of mystery and all-too-human foibles DiCaprio manages admirably, goes through all that he does to win her back. Theirs is meant to be a romance for the ages, albeit one that is eventually dragged back down to earth by the petty realities of social convention and human frailty, and while it certainly packs infinitely more sizzle than Robert Redford and Mia Farrow did in Jack Clayton’s stately, but dull 1974 film adaptation, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is ultimately too much for its own good, drowning its best intentions in stylistic overkill.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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