The Good, the Baz and the Ugly
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” which arrives six months after its originally scheduled December release date but maintains something of a gussied-up holiday feel, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as staged by Liberace. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that the Aussie auteur behind the gaudy, more-is-more spectacles “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia” has delivered a “Gatsby” less in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel than in that of its eponymous antihero — a man who believes bejeweled excess will help him win the heart of the one thing his money can’t buy.
Cinema audiences can prove as fickle and elusive as Daisy Buchanan, too, but a starry cast (and soundtrack) and sheer curiosity value will power this Warner/Village Roadshow co-production to career-best B.O. numbers for Luhrmann (a record currently held by “Australia,” at $211 million), if not quite enough to justify its supposed $127 million budget.
Like the blinking green beacon at the end of Daisy’s dock, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has been a siren song for filmmakers since it was published in 1925. It is often said that great books make for inferior films and vice versa, but there is something particular about “Gatsby” that seems to defy the screen. Transformed into voiceover, the running first-person narration of Nick Carraway (here played by Tobey Maguire) turns stilted and dry. Scrutinized by the camera’s gaze, Fitzgerald’s symbols and signifiers become leaden with portent: the green light, the yellow roadster, the mountain of custom-tailored shirts, the unused swimming pool and the ever-watchful eyes staring out from the billboard of an enterprising Queens ocularist. With Luhrmann at the helm, those devices loom larger and more literal than ever.
Of course, to accuse Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce) of overkill is a bit like faulting a leopard for his spots. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it, this is unmistakably his “Gatsby” through and through, and as with all such carte-blanche extravaganzas, it exudes an undeniable fascination — at least for a while. In the notes for his unfinished final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” Fitzgerald famously wrote, “action is character,” but for Luhrmann action is production design, hairstyling, Prada gowns and sweeping, swirling,
CGI-enhanced camera movements that offer more bird’s-eye views of Long Island (actually the Fox Studios in Sydney) than “The Hobbit” did of Middle-earth. Arguably, the movie reaches its orgiastic peak 30 minutes in, with the first full reveal of Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio), accompanied by an explosion of fireworks and Gershwin on the soundtrack. Where, really, can one go from there?
But oh, how Luhrmann tries. Together with cinematographer Simon Duggan, he unleashes every manipulation he can think of — sepia flashbacks, smash zooms, split screens, superimpositions, period newsreel footage, new footage degraded to resemble period newsreel footage — all of it coming at you in three stereoscopic dimensions. Only occasionally does the style seem like an actual response to the text rather than a visual circus operating independently of it.
In one of the pic’s more striking passages, Carraway’s famous observation that he feels at once “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled,” becomes a lyrical mosaic of shared New York experience. Less effectively, complete sentences from the novel appear typed out onscreen — a gimmick explained by a framing device that situates Carraway in a sanitarium, recounting the tale of Gatsby to a captivated shrink (Jack Thompson).
What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball. But Luhrmann identifies far more strongly with Gatsby than with Nick, and instead of a tragic figure undone by false optimism and unrequited yearning, the character becomes an object of envy. Who cares if you’re doomed to meet an untimely end, so long as you go out looking fabulous?
Everyone does look the part in this “Gatsby”, not least DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan (as Daisy), though in the years since his innovative, modern-dress “Romeo + Juliet,” Luhrmann has become less interested in performances than in artful poses. Periodically, as if by accident, something like real emotion pokes up through the film’s well-manicured surface, as when Gatsby recounts his first meeting with Daisy, his face lighting up with childlike hope. More often, “Gatsby” feels like a well-rehearsed classic in which the actors say their lines ably, but with no discernible feeling. By far the liveliest work comes from two thesps with only a few minutes of screen time between them: lithe, long-limbed newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as gabby golf pro Jordan Baker, and, in a single scene that marks his belated Hollywood debut, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan as the flamboyant Jewish “gambler,” Meyer Wolfsheim.
Among the uniformly accomplished technical contributions, Luhrmann’s producer wife, Catherine Martin (already a double Oscar winner for “Moulin Rouge”) once again stands out for her production and costume design.
Luhrmann Makes a Classic His Own
No wonder Cannes invited “The Great Gatsby” to open the festival this year. Baz Luhrmann’s glittery adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is as strong an example of auteur cinema as Hollywood can support — which is to say, the “Moulin Rouge” director has taken an American literary classic many half-remember from high school and reinvented it as only he could: as a gaily expressionistic, vibrantly kaleidoscopic pastiche of visual and musical styles.
Forget the West Egg you thought you knew; Luhrmann sucks out its yolk and stuffs it full of confetti, replacing the book’s finely etched characters with larger-than-life archetypes. Juggling design influences, he blends everything from period illustrator J.C. Leyendecker’s golden-haired, square-shouldered ideal to the gauzy, high-artifice fantasies of 1960s underground filmmaker James Bidgood into a dizzying whirlwind. It’s enough to make even Armani or Liberace blush.
On the page, the hyperbole doesn’t seem quite so … hyperbolic, as one can only imagine the grandeur of Gatsby’s parties, the scale of his mansion and the extent of his shirt collection. Despite retaining moth-on-the-wall Nick Carraway as his bookish narrator, behind the camera, Luhrmann adopts the tacky, new-money personality of Gatsby’s uncouth party-crashers. This spirit of revelry extends to the director’s brazen creative choices, as when he sets the cuckolding of white supremacist Tom Buchanan to contemporary hiphop music.
Whether or not one appreciates what Luhrmann has done with “Gatsby” is almost secondary to the achievement of making such a well-known work his own. The operatically inclined helmer goes big with the material, to the extent that “great” seems an inadequate word to describe its titanic, tragic hero. The French title — the one that will accompany its premiere in Cannes — is “Gatsby le Magnifique,” and somehow that seems more apropos, for Luhrmann amplifies the legend of his rags-to-riches hero to “Citizen Kane-esque stature. Daisy blooms while Rosebud burns, and yet both make powerful catalysts for chasing the American Dream.
Glitzy “Gatsby” Remains Book-Bound
Sinking into my seat before “The Great Gatsby,” I tried to keep some encouraging wisdom from the book in mind: “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” Afterward, removing my 3D glasses and brushing invisible glitter from my shoulder, I could no longer quite recall F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, even though I had just spent two-and-a-half hours reading little else. Among its many innovations, Baz Luhrmann’s latest showpiece is the rare adaptation that forces you to do almost as much reading as the novel itself, slathering whole chunks of Fitzgerald’s prose onscreen amid cutaways to a furiously typing-and-scribbling Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire).
Let’s give Luhrmann credit for capturing the author’s voice in the one way he knows how: in an attractive selection of typefaces. A companion piece to the director’s superior “Moulin Rouge,” this “Gatsby” is another early-20th-century tale of doomed love staged as maximalist kitsch carnival, filmed in a hectic postmodern style and an explosion of musical epochs designed to wow you with old-fashioned, newfangled razzle-dazzle. Like any good souffle, it’s pretty even when it collapses. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a suitably debonair Gatsby; Carey Mulligan is a beautiful little fool indeed as Daisy Buchanan. Catherine Martin’s production design and costumes are as staggering as you’d expect: Don’t be surprised if your attention wanders from the nervous drama of Gatsby and Daisy’s first reunion to an eye-catching selection of macarons.
But no degree of visual opulence can ultimately free this picture from its lumbering and unimaginative fidelity to the page. The ignominious history of “Gatsby” onscreen raises questions to which Luhrmann provides no answer: Why does this slim, haunting literary classic inspire such thuddingly literal-minded movies? Why are so many Hollywood adaptations such triumphs of art direction and such failures of nerve?
None of this changes the fact that Warners has a sizable hit on its hands. And if you’re interested in hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” by way of Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” or having your retinas tickled by billowing 3D curtains, or surveying the latest in designer cloche hats and retro-fabulous wallpaper, this “Gatsby,” a willing victim of the excesses its story ostensibly critiques, is not without its pleasures. Me, I resisted — beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Baz.
“The Great Gatsby”
Credits: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and A&E Television of a Bazmark/ Red Wagon Entertainment production. Produced by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman. Executive producers, Barrie M. Osborne, Bruce Berman, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Co-producer, Anton Monsted. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Sc reenplay, Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Camera (color, widescreen, Red Digital Cinema, 3D), Simon Duggan; editors, Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond; music, Craig Armstrong; executive music supervisor, Anton Monsted; production designer, Catherine Martin; supervising art director, Ian Gracie; costume designer, Martin. Reviewed at WARNER BROS. SCREENING ROOM, NEW YORK, APRIL 30, 2013. (IN CANNES FILM FESTIVAL — OPENER.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 141 MIN.