Saturday, May 11, 2013

Borne Back Into the Past: THE GREAT GATSBY

It’s easy to see why over the years some have seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby a fine idea for a film. The book contains memorable characters and quotable lines contained in a plot of some intrigue and mystery, romance and regret. It’s not hard to see how it can all be pushed into tasteful melodrama of the kind the movies are so good at. (They’re even better at tasteless melodrama, but that’s not my point yet.) What previous adaptations of Gatsby have failed to grasp, however, is that this great novel needs not a cinematic transcription, but a jolt of cinema itself to play on screen. Last seen in theaters in 1974 directed by Jack Clayton from a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, the story felt stale, stiff and humorless, despite the best efforts of an all-star cast headlined by Robert Redford. This time around, the director and co-adapter is Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and Australia, one a musical and two so broad, vibrant, and melodic they might as well be. He makes films in a style that’s a kaleidoscope of the gaudy, the campy, the kitsch, proudly waving the flag of melodrama while shouting from the rooftops his themes and ambitions. He brings the spark of cinema the story needs to really take off on screen.

Glittering and glowing with colorful period detail and wailing a mix of jazzy standards and anachronistic tunes from the likes of Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey (not to mention a great Charleston-style cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”), Luhrmann’s film is bursting at the seams with invention of the kind that illuminates Fitzgerald’s text without subsuming it. Now, I’m of the opinion that adaptations have no particular obligation to faithfully reproduce every aspect of their source materials. But this Gatsby is both faithful to the events, characters, themes, and symbols of Fitzgerald’s, while the telling – structure (mostly) aside – is all Luhrmann’s. It has the wild exuberance of a Gatsby party with all the distance to see how hollow it ultimately is. Using generous amounts of Fitzgerald’s original text verbatim in voice over, dialogue, and on-screen titles, the film maintains a sense of wit and social commentary amidst the colorful party atmosphere and melodrama that bursts forth.

The film, like the novel, uses the character of Nick Carraway as narrator and observer. It’s the height of the Roaring Twenties. He’s moved to New York City for a job on Wall Street and finds himself living in fictional West Egg, procuring a cottage next door to the mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. No one knows much of anything about the man; they only know he throws great parties, wild, packed, affluent parties in which the rich and wannabe rich, the influential and the climbers all rub elbows, drink bootleg alcohol, and dance the night away. Luhrmann, in a more restrained version of the carousing Moulin Rouge! hyperactivity, films these elaborate soirées with exuberance, using his mishmash of music choices and Catherine Martin’s impeccable production design to highlight the glamour and excitement of such an event. Gatsby parties seem fun, but they seem just as meaningless. No one knows precisely why they’re there any more than they know a thing about Gatsby beyond wild rumors. The host, for his part, seems spectacularly uninterested in the spectacle of his own making.

The summer setting is the perfect time for these lengthy nights separated by endless languorous days spent whiling away the hours. Carraway (Tobey Maguire) tells us all about the vacuous, energetic people he meets away from Gatsby’s, including his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her brutish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), his mistress (Isla Fisher) and her husband (Jason Clarke). Carraway starts a flirtation with a famous golfer (Elizabeth Debicki). Sometimes he goes to work. He’s a busy guy, but he’s not really drawn into this world until he meets Gatsby. Luhrmann films the title character’s entrance in a grand, theatrical way that does not disappoint. Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns in slow motion, raising a cocktail glass in toasting, smirk on his face, fireworks slowly erupting in the sky behind him while the soundtrack and his eyes are lost sparkling in a dreamy blue rhapsody.

I’ll preserve the mystery of Gatsby, his relationships, and his ambitions for those who haven’t read the book. But I will say that as the film goes along, Luhrmann brings a satisfying bitter romance, full of as much sadness as swooning, that slowly builds to a sequence in a hothouse of a hotel room where a crisply edited small party becomes uncomfortably personal until emotions boil over. It’s a lovely luridness of love and death, affairs and scandal, loss and loneliness. The performances are sharply drawn, from Maguire’s Carraway’s starry-eyed wonder giving way to hindsight skepticism to Mulligan’s Daisy’s flat affect and foolish affectations cracking under the pressure of the possibility of remaking her life. And then there’s Gatsby. DiCaprio brings exactly the right combination of irresistible charm and unknowability. He’s slick and smooth, but what’s he up to? He’s sympathetic, but how much do we really know about him? It’s a slippery performance that never feels unmoored as the audience learns more about who he really is.

What’s best about the film is its consistency of vision, a vibrancy that never forsakes the source material while confidently striding forward as its own postmodern construction. Luhrmann freely mixes and matches artistic inspirations, bringing his swooping 3D camera through digital recreations of Jazz Age architecture, energy, and glamorous coarseness. He’s such a big believer in the power of movie magic to evoke strong emotions through gorgeous fakery that he’d never mention the unutterable fact that it’s not always true. He’s too busy making the story burst to life with every trick he knows. For this, Gatsby feels truly cinematic in ways it never has on screen before. It’s lively, funny, and rewarding without suffocating under its seriousness. Through irresistible, shameless visual frippery and vividly colorful melodramatics Douglas Sirk might have been proud of, Luhrmann finds and takes as his own Fitzgerald’s core laser-sharp, gin-dry social commentary. Consider this exchange between Carraway and Gatsby, concerning complicated decorative plans for a small get-together: “Is it too much?” Gatsby asks. Carraway replies, “I think it’s what you want.” Is this Gatsby too much? It's what I wanted.

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