Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby

When Luhrmann Met Fitzgerald

By Melissa Agar

The Great Gatsby (WB, 2013) – Director: Baz Luhrmann. Cast: Leonardo DiCarpio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, & Amitabh Bachchan. Color & 3-D, 142 minutes.

First off, I need to start with a confession:  The Great Gatsby is one of my all-time favorite books. I can still remember reading it as a freshman in high school and feeling completely immersed in the glamorous world of Jazz Age New York. I had a “literary crush” on Jay Gatsby and was devastated when he met his tragic end. After witnessing the rather bland film version starring an admittedly handsome Robert Redford and an irritatingly whiny Mia Farrow, I was convinced that the book was possibly unfilmable. How could you ever truly capture the boozy lyricism of Fitzgerald’s prose? When news emerged that Luhrmann was taking a stab at bringing Gatsby to life – and in 3D, no less – I was dubious. 

While I admire much of Luhrmann’s work, I find other aspects of it more spectacle than substance, and his tendency to stray too far from his original source was troubling. Add in a couple actors for whom I’ve often been lukewarm to downright hostile (DiCaprio and Maguire, respectively) and the anachronistic choice to have Jay-Z produce the soundtrack, and I went into the theater with a sense of doom in the pit of my stomach. And yet I went to the theater. As much as I doubted the ability of this crew to pull off a good adaptation of one of my favorite books, the nerdy fan girl in me still had to hit the theater on opening weekend to either confirm my suspicions or be proved completely wrong. When it was all said and done, a little bit of both is what happened.

For those who skipped Gatsby in their high school English classes, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a man who rose from nothing to become the epicenter of the New York social scene during one glorious summer in the 1920’s. The reader learns that everything Gatsby has done has been to win the heart of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan), despite the fact that Daisy has married another man, Tom (Edgerton), a wealthy, philandering snob. All of this is filtered through the gaze of our narrator, Nick Calloway (Maguire), Daisy’s cousin who has arrived in New York to begin a career as a bonds trader on Wall Street and becomes the bridge Gatsby needs to find his way back to Daisy. 

It is a book filled with deeply-flawed characters. Gatsby has built his empire on lies and shady business dealings. Daisy, trapped in a world where women have not quite succumbed to the lure of empowerment, is motivated by her greed and self-interest. A violent, racist brute lies behind Tom’s aristocratic veneer. Nick is one of those people who seem willing to sit back and watch the lives of others rather than engaging in his own. More than once, you want to take a page from Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck and, with a slap across the face, urge these characters to “Snap out of it!” 

On its surface, Luhrmann’s film gives in to the glossy temptation of its Jazz Era setting. The screen is often crammed from edge to edge with all the glitz and glamour the era calls to mind for many. Gatsby’s infamous parties onscreen become orgiastic bacchanalias where the champagne flows like rivers through the gold-trimmed hallways, where scantily-clad flappers nearly burst with the ecstasy of youth and independence, and where you can introduce your protagonist with bursts of fireworks sure to set hearts aflutter. Indeed, for much of the first half of the film, it seems as if Luhrmann has completely surrendered to the glamour of the era and lost sight of the heart that does lurk amongst the empty champagne glasses and caviar trays. As with much of Luhrmann’s work, there is a frenetic, desperate energy to these early scenes as if he is afraid the viewer will leave before the film is over. The problem with that style, though, is that is can sometimes lack heart and become a distraction where the art of the film overpowers the heart of the film. This was the case with his deeply flawed Romeo and Juliet from 1996 where MTV-driven jump cuts distract from the strong acting delivered by DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles. The same nearly happened with his significantly better Moulin Rouge, but Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman were able to karate chop their way through the hyper-kinetic energy enough to allow their tragic love story to resonate. 

The emotional tide of Gatsby turns when the title character finally shows his face. For much of the first part of the film, Gatsby lurks in the shadows. We see a hand. We see a silhouette. But when Nick finally comes face to face with Gatsby, the fireworks that provide the background also become a signal that the film is about to explode as well. Gatsby’s introduction to Nick (and the audience) brings soul to the film at long last. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is a soulful enigma – at one moment a cool customer who lives a life shrouded in mystery and in the next a hopeless romantic desperate to win the love of a woman. It is perhaps DiCaprio’s finest acting role to date, and watching him dance that character’s emotional dance is a bit awe-inspiring. 

That is not to say that other performances are lacking. I particularly liked the work of Mulligan as the fickle Daisy. On the page, she’s a difficult character to like although a part of you kind of wants to like her. After all, we care about Gatsby, Gatsby cares about Daisy, so shouldn’t we care about Daisy, too? There is a sensitivity to Mulligan’s portrayal that makes Daisy perhaps the most sympathetic she can be. (It is hard, after all, to sympathize with a woman so self-centered as to allow her lover to take the fall for her actions - not to give too much away.) She endows Daisy with an awareness of the stakes involved should she leave her husband (and the father of her rarely mentioned child) for this other man, a man about whom she really knows very little. You feel Daisy’s quandary, but still feel the disappointment when she turns her back on Gatsby.

The fact that DiCaprio and Mulligan are able to instill the film with such soul despite being surrounded by art design that is at times overwhelming is a credit to them both. There are moments when the film does feel like it’s teetering on the brink of absurdity – drunken revelers getting their groove on to Jay-Z as they cross the Queensboro Bridge, the absolute insanity of the Gatsby parties, the Buchanan parlor awash in white linen, moments when Luhrmann is clearly putting style over substance. Other moments work a bit better. I particularly liked the framing of the film, allowing Nick to write the story of Gatsby and Daisy as part of his therapy for depression and alcoholism. Luhrmann has a couple moments where he allows Fitzgerald’s words to fly out of Nick’s mind and onto the screen. That recognition of the delicacy and beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose made the English teacher in me tear up just a little. Luhrmann cuts back on the jump cuts that made Romeo and Juliet such a mess and allows for tender moments between Daisy and Gatsby that give the film an emotional weight lacking in much of his other work.

There is also a modern air to this film that helps it escape the fate of being merely a period film. Certainly, contemporary audiences can find resonant themes in Gatsby’s willingness to do whatever it takes to escape his childhood poverty, in the disgusting excess of the lives these characters lead, and in the awareness that ultimately, these lives of excess are incredibly hollow. There is a powerful examination to be found here of our celebrity culture and our tabloid obsession with the rich and famous, a culture that proves itself to be quite empty when all is said and done. The argument could be made that Daisy Buchanan is a likely ancestor of the Real Housewives who seem to live only to consume and exploit. By choosing modern music to score scenes of such excess, Luhrmann wraps us up in this indictment of the lives these characters lead so that we are left feeling the same hollow bitterness Nick feels at the end when he realizes how shallow that world truly is. As we watch the paparazzi swarm Gatsby’s otherwise unattended funeral, we join Nick in his anger and know that Gatsby begins the lives that Snooki and the Kardashians and their ilk still lead. 

Is The Great Gatsby a perfect film? No, but it is a film that sticks with you and prompts conversation, and in these days of car chases and gross-out comedy, that has to account for something. 

Grade: B+

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