The Great Gatsby
Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (Novel: F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan
PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
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Baz Luhrmann has earned a reputation as one of the most flamboyant and risky directors working today. His general commercial success has justified his eccentricities. The Great Gatsby hews very close to the Luhrmann playbook, but does so without damaging the source material.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential 1925 prohibition-era novel tells the story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a playboy bootlegger pining for the wealthy Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) whose decadence stems from a desire to showcase how much money he’s made since he left Daisy as a penniless soldier heading off to The Great War. Narrated by bond salesman NicK Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he gets drawn into the exotic affair, Luhrmann’s film sticks closely to Fitzgerald’s novel, leaving segments of the book’s final chapter behind to create an indelible vision of the story.
Luhrmann’s framing device is a sanitariam where Carraway has been committed because of a laundry list of ailments, not the least of which is drunkenness. This approach is absent from the novel, but does not serve as a suitable distraction to the story and, unlike a lot of modern filmmakers, the device isn’t shunted when it’s no longer necessary. We return frequently to Carraway writing about the whirlwind Summer he spent as a neighbor to and confidant of The Great Gatsby.
In the opening of the novel, Fitzegerald describes Daisy in immeasurable detail. Having known the casting, it may have been a kernel in my mind, but I cannot help but read those many words and not picture Mulligan. Although she’s given as little to do as Daisy as in the book, Mulligan is a charming, affable presence whose infectious smiles and wistful glances solidify what Gatsby and her husband (Joel Edgerton) are so fiendishly in love with her. Why Tom Buchanan would cheat on her is astounding, but that indiscretion provides the major plot trajectory that makes the novel so complicaed and involving.
DiCaprio isn’t my precise ideal of the pining Gatsby, but his rakish determinaton smooths over any reticence one might have watching the performance. Not is best performance by any stretch, but a complex, carefully constructed one. Maguire struggles to slough off his wide-eyed youthfulness and almost succeeds as the awed and easily influenced Carraway. His scenes in the sanitariam are far more convincing than those in the bulk of the film, which makes for a surprising and effective dichotomy.
Edgerton’s a fine actor, but still hasn’t found the type of role he can excel in. Here, he plays the brutish, ex-footballer whose wealth immunizes him to the criticism of others. He plays Tom as a smug, condescending jerk for much of the film and even when he’s around his mistress, his performance feels a bit stilted. For me, the film’s revelation is Elizabeth Debicki. As Daisy’s friend and eventually Nick’s paramore Jordan Baker, a tall, lanky golfer whose appreciation for those outside her social strata makes her one of the more fascinating characters in the film. Debicki’s infuses her with charm and personality where none carries over from the book. If she can avoid falling too many mass appeal projects, she could have a promising career as an actress.
Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin is responsible for the look and feel of each of his films and while that can seem overpowering in a film like Australia, capturing the excessive decadence of the upper class for The Great Gatsby is keeping perfectly within themes of Fitzgerald’s novel. Contrast the massive estates of East Egg and West Egg with the dingy, industrialized “valley of ashes” where the lower class caste is entombed. Although the photography of this era is glossy like the rest of the film, the squalor and struggles fo the working class are juxtaposed with the isolation of the upper class in spite of living next door to it.
Fitzgerald’s novel questions the insular nature of wealth and how difficult it is for them to accept anyone who builds themselves up and becomes as wealthy as they. In spite of Gatsby’s method of moneymaking, it’s not the wealth or his chosen source of income that bother the rich. It’s that he’s little more than an angry, lower class rascal falsely believing he can be one of them. And after Gatsby’s fall from grace, this is incredibly evident in the sudden departure and ignorance by his “friends” wanting to dissociate themselves with him.
It’s easy to believe that the romance between Daisy and Gatsby and the rocky relationship between Daisy and Tom is the core concern of the novel and while that feels appropriate and is emphasized in the film, Fitzgerald’s own narrator comments not on the romantic entanglement, but the depravity of the wealthy and their utter disregard for the damage their haughty attitudes can cause. Although Daisy is clearly in love with Gatsby and initially rebuffs her affection for Tom, she eventually admits that she cares for both men, but when it comes to what each man can provide and the crumbling world of Jay Gatsby, she chooses security over love and passion. Her concern is for her own safety and that of her daughter, referenced more frequently in the novel than in the film, than it is for some idealized version of love. Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is one of the most faithful adaptations ever created, but being faithful to the word and not necessarily to its intent makes the film feel a bit more hollow than it need be.
Still, Luhrmann gets a lot of credit for what he puts forth in The Great Gatsby, the 3D technology aside, the film is less bloated and more snappy than his previous efforts. There are elements that drag some, but for the most part, the film is a quick-moving escapist screed with commentary on class warfare tossed in for good measure. That he only sullies a few frames with anachronistic music will delight those purists wanting more George Gershwin than Jay Z. One particularly energetic period-accurate piece is a fireworks display to Gershwin’s great “Rhapsody in Blue.” Chreographed into a sequence more heavily influenced by modern beats, it adds a brilliant emphasis to the revelation of Jay Gatsby. And while those Jay Z-orchestrated moments are few and far between, the film sticks closely to the tone and feel of the Jazz Age that Fitzegerald’s novel so effectively describes.
Purists may be able to look past the music and enjoy an otherwise period-accurate depiction of the 1920’s, but Luhrmann’s style may not go over well with many of them. This is a film that clearly looks to our current political clime in deciding to parallel the music, but it is a bit distracting at times. Making your film feel more modern to appeal to a narrow demographic of filmgoers doesn’t make you a visionary. And while that aspect certainly discredits Luhrmann’s ego, there’s little question that what remains is a stylish bit of pulp entertainment that has a great deal of commentary if you’re willing to look past it and dig into the material.
Guarantees: Production Direction
Probables: Costume Design
Potentials: Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Makeup and Hairystling, Sound Mixing
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Actor – Leonardo DiCaprio, Actress – Carey Mulligna, Supporting Actor – Tobey Maguire, Supporting Actor – Joel Edgerton, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
June 6, 2013