A "Great" Gatsby? Absolutely!

by Bill Gibron

10 May 2013

Luhrmann's Gatsby may be the most boisterous downer ever put to film. By playing up the highs, the director increases the depth of the lows.
cover art

The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Amitabh Bachchan, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki

(Warner Bros)
US theatrical: 10 May 2013 (General release)

Perhaps it’s too entrenched in our cultural zeitgeist to find a successful translation. Along with A Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby is part of our literary mass hysteria, a right of middle/high school-college passage which predicates our understanding of the novel as artform. We have it beaten into our uneducated heads, reimagined and reconfigured as everything from a revisionist American Dream to the myth of the self-made self made man demystified. So if PhDs can pull apart the many layers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slight third novel like so many flakes in a fine croissant, imparting their ivory tower wisdom on a barely waking student body, why can’t Baz Luhrmann? Why, exactly, does his masterpiece of multimedia reinterpretation deserve scorn, while your favorite university professor earns tenure?
The truth is, no version of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age allegory was ever going to please the masses. Like any work of classicism, The Great Gatsby is the very definition of an insular experience, 55,000 scant words which can be free associated into anything the reader envisions. For some, it’s a story of abhorrent upward mobility. For others, it’s the second best doomed romance after Romeo and Juliet’s (another feather in Luhrmann’s filmmaking cap). There are those who consider it a chronicle of its times, though its drunken narrator, Nick Carraway (and by extension, its equally inebriated author) may have been more imaginative outsider than actual reporter. And then, like the man behind the lens here, some see The Great Gatsby as a story of obsession, of how one man’s desire to recapture the past destroys his present.

Casting an absolutely perfect Leonardo Dicaprio (continuing his run of decidedly grown-up roles as of late) and letting the rest of the players make up for it, Luhrmann invests his Gatsby with the trappings of today in order to seduce us into the world of the Roaring ‘20s. Playing the movie like a set of symphonic movements (within a hip-hop inspired mash-up musical score from producer Jay-Z) we witness the era’s excesses, only to then watch as they then turn around and trap their purveyors. Gatsby’s notorious parties, most of the book’s bedeviling intoxication, are brought to stunning life here, a combination of hedonism and similarly heady CG modern commentary which remind us that, no matter the century, vice still feels both wonderful and wicked. As flappers fan their favors at men too boozed up on money and Prohibition era spirits to care or know different, we see everything from ‘60s happenings to new millennial champagne rooms.

For those who’ve forgotten their English 1010, The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick Carraway’s (a wonderful Tobey Maguire) Summer on the Long Island suburb of West Egg. New to the Big Apple and trying to make a name for himself in bonds, he takes up a small cottage next to the gargantuan manor castle owned by the mysterious Gatsby. The two strike up a friendship. He soon discovers his favorite cousin, a Kentucky socialite named Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the way. Married to old money in the crude persona form of a carousing Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Nick soon learns of a long simmering link between his new neighbor and his relative. It’s not long before he’s acting as intermediary between Gatsby and his former flame, a wistful tryst that will end up in ruin.

To his credit, Lurhmann never lets the flash get in the way of the finer points. We are supposed to see Gatsby’s false fronts, his desperation to get Daisy back in his life measured out with his many unspoken crimes and uncountable luxuries. Indeed, this is not a man of means so much as a man who made his money on the back of debauchery’s demands. Buchanan likes to argue that his old world wealth is better than his rival’s ill-gotten gains, but the source of exploitation is still the same. Gatsby’s crime is one of concurrence and collusion, of aiding and abetting the downfall of Western post-War society by providing the illicit delights which fuel the speakeasies and bathtub gin palaces. All Buchanan did was belly up to his birthright.

For his part, Lurhmann both tantalizes and telegraphs. We know things aren’t going to end well for the Wilsons, the wrong side of the tracks couple who play Tom Buchanan’s mistress (a dishy Isla Fisher) and muscle (a rummy eyed Jason Clarke), and every time the swells slam their cars into drive and pass from the Eggs to Manhattan, they move through their white trash landfill linkage, those symbolic optometrist’s eyes from the novel acting as stand-in for the judgment of God. It’s an obvious visual cue, with linen dressed snobs crawling through the actual filth to continue through the more civilized examples of same on either side. We never once get excuses for the Buchanans or Jay Gatsby. The former finds their curse in racism and brutish behavior. The latter believes that money can buy happiness. Sadly, he doesn’t realize that there isn’t any for sale.

In fact, Luhrmann’s Gatsby may be the most boisterous downer ever put to film. By playing up the highs, the director increases the depth of the lows. When Gatsby forces Daisy’s hand in a plush, overheated Plaza suite, the inherent melodrama of the scene turns into a sequence of pure human meltdown. Our “hero” shows his harsh side, Tom Buchanan cowers as he tries to save inherited face, and Daisy, poor sad demented Daisy, puts on her damsel in distress airs, waiting for someone, or something, to save her. That last act salvation, in the form of a car accident which brings everyone together, functions as the final death knell before the Market crash of ‘29 and the end of the good times. By building us up with eye candy and 3D diversions, Luhrmann turns his coda and its “boats against the current” closure into a true end of innocence.

Superbly acted (Dicpario deserves an Oscar nomination, if not the actual trophy) and navigated with a level of daredevil expertise missing from most movies, The Great Gatsby is better than any other film in Luhrmann’s canon. It surpasses Moulin Rouge in terms of tenacity while avoiding the cloying components of Simply Ballroom or the god-awful Australia. For a man whose only made five films in the last 22 years (you read that right), he argues for his auteur status, someone who can make any material his own (see his celebrated update of Shakespeare) while keeping the source’s core intact. Again, we probably know Gatsby too well to warrant his chaotic creativity, but in the end, the results remain firmly part of the Fitzgerald legend. The Great Gatsby is a book of unqualified contradictions. This movie is maddeningly - and magnificently - the same.

The Great Gatsby


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