Jazz Age, With Jay-Z
Larger-than-life Gatsby glitters, just may be gold
Published: May 22, 2013
The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
A mysterious, young rich man pines for a lost love, now married. Her hot-headed husband, himself involved in barely concealed affairs, takes note of their attraction to each other. Mix in bootlegged booze and extravagant parties and polished roadsters, murky pasts, societal mores, and New York City in the 1920s, and you’ve got a good story, old sport.
The formula for The Great Gatsby would seem bound for cinematic success, yet its previous translations to film—a trailer is all that remains of the 1926 silent version; Leonard Maltin called the 1949 remake with Alan Ladd “a misguided adaptation”; Robert Redford’s take on the novel, in 1974, is infamously lackluster, its performances practically anaerobic—have been critical and box-office flops.
Now, with our burgeoning interest in speakeasies and old-timey cocktails, Baz Luhrmann’s technicolored, 3-D spin on Gatsby, though not without problems, appears poised to overcome the legacy of Hollywood failure. In its opening weekend, the movie pulled in a formidable $51 million, beaten only by Iron Man 3. Luhrmann, of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, as well as the tremendous bomb Australia, has proven to be a master of visual splendor. This viewer saw Gatsby in 2-D and wouldn’t opt for the upgrade. It was ornate enough already, pleasingly so.
A glittering cast bolsters the film’s potential. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby effectively evinces his character’s desperate grip on a foregone dream; his affectations hint at the imperfect fit of this man with the mold he has hammered himself into. Carey Mulligan plays Daisy Buchanan, her voice “full of money,” and she conveys Daisy’s simultaneous discontent with her marriage and hesitancy to shake things up. Joel Edgerton’s imperious Tom Buchanan also hits the right notes, displaying entitled arrogance and self-assuredness in equal measure.
Nick Carraway’s character, played by Tobey Maguire, affords some quibbles. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce conflate Nick and F. Scott Fitzgerald to establish a framing device. At the start of the movie, Nick struggles to voice his experiences to a psychiatrist-type at a sanitarium, where he has been diagnosed with morbid alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and fits of anger. (These fits are demonstrated: Nick remains tamped down for most of the story, but he bucks his genteel Midwestern demeanor at times, flaring up when it’s entirely inappropriate and somewhat annoying.) His doctor suggests that he write down his memories, resulting in a plot delivery markedly similar to Moulin Rouge! Every now and then, the Jay-Daisy drama is interrupted by a shot of Maguire determinedly punching away at a typewriter. In the end, Nick pens Gatsby as a means of self-expression and a realization of his dream of writing. The neatly tied end is hokey and half-hearted.
Gatsby’s ragers, tuned to Jay-Z numbers, are strongly reminiscent of Moulin Rouge!’s ostentation, especially in its direction. We’re bombarded with closeups, canted and crane shots, quick cuts from one scene of lavish revelry to the next. For the most part, the spectacle suits the content, but occasionally Luhrmann goes overboard. Glossy, sweeping views of Gatsby’s stone mansion, with lofty towers and palatial grounds, almost possess an air of Disney: In one sequence, Nick happens to glance skyward at his neighbor’s house, and Gatsby appears from afar, standing at a curtained window in a turret, surveying the bay between East and West Egg. In that moment, it’s a little Beauty and the Beast.
Luhrmann’s wife, two-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin, served as the production and costume designer, as she did for Moulin Rouge! She produces the same brilliant color and fantastic atmosphere in Gatsby, which was filmed in Australia. New York in the ’20s isn’t captured, per se, but Gatsby’s and Daisy’s worlds dazzle. Martin contrasts Gatsby’s nouveau riche opulence with the moneyed polo-prep aesthetic of the Buchanan estate—emphasizing the same distinction that Tom shoves in Gatsby’s face in their Plaza Hotel standoff.
The flashy treatment Martin and Luhrmann give Gatsby does well in reinforcing its wealth-suffused story. As with many novels that one reads in youth, for the die-hard, Luhrmann’s Gatsby will fall short as an adaptation: The characters appearances and mannerisms already conjured up, played out just so. One’s own imagined Gatsby or Nick or Daisy will trump any screen representation. But for those who came to Gatsby later, whose images of East Egg aren’t so deeply ingrained—and for those who haven’t read it at all—Luhrmann’s film illuminates the beloved story, colors it vividly, without the artificial, sweaty glimmer of Redford’s Gatsby. And like the book, which received decidedly mixed reviews when it was first published, in 1925, the capacity for Luhrmann’s work to endure will only be borne out by time itself. ■
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