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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

Frankly, I was dreading Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but I wouldn’t have
anticipated that this master of gaudy excess had a genuine desire to do justice
to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. It’s the struggle between the filmmaker’s
natural instincts and his better self that makes the results so wildly
inconsistent.

The movie bears all of Luhrmann’s trademarks, along with a
panorama of patently artificial CGI landscapes, the likes of which he couldn’t
execute when he made Moulin Rouge a
decade ago. What’s more, they are rendered in 3-D, a needless appurtenance that
left me with a headache. The ultimate Luhrmann sequence, a gargantuan party in
Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, provides an excuse for scores of elaborately
costumed dancers, performers and extras to make whoopee to a blend of 1920s
music and hip-hop numbers by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter (who also receives credit as
one of the movie’s executive producers). As in Moulin Rouge, it seems a shame to expend so much effort when the
camera never settles on any one aspect of the picture long enough for us to
absorb it. Oddly enough, I didn’t mind the hip-hop tracks, as they seemed to
capture the reckless energy of the roaring ‘20s; it’s the rapid-fire editing
that wore me out, all the more so in 3-D.

But when the movie gets down to business, it takes on a
completely different tone. In fact, as Gatsby acolyte Nick Carraway (nicely
played by Tobey Maguire) begins his narration, words form on the screen in an
effort to salute the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language.

Most of the characters are well cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is
ideal as the enigmatically appealing, self-invented Jay Gatsby, with Carey
Mulligan as the woman of his dreams who gave up on her own ideals long ago.
Joel Edgerton is appropriately harsh as her bumptious husband, Tom Buchanan,
while Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke have little to do but look the parts as the
ill-fated Myrtle and George Wilson. Likewise, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki fills
the visual description of a high-living 1920s celebrity like Jordan Baker. I
can’t say the same for celebrated Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who’s an odd
choice to play the Jewish wheeler-dealer Meyer Wolfsheim.

The weight of the drama falls on DiCaprio and Maguire, and
they come through splendidly. It’s the movie itself that seems to run out of
gas at some point, especially as Luhrmann drives home symbolic moments with the
subtlety of an ambulance siren. (If I saw one more closeup of the oculist’s
billboard peering ominously over George Wilson’s garage and its working-class
neighborhood, I was going to scream.)

How, then, to sum up this fourth big-screen rendering of The Great Gatsby? I would call it a
mixed bag. It’s better than the lumpy 1949 version with Alan Ladd, and not as
bland as the 1974 production with Robert Redford, which was scripted by Francis
Ford Coppola. (We can’t discuss the most tantalizing version, made in 1926 when
the novel was new; there are no known copies of the film extant.) It certainly
isn’t dull, and it has many virtues. But in the end, no filmmaker has been able
to capture the elusive qualities that have made the book an enduring
masterpiece. Baz Luhrmann and his collaborators (including screenwriter Craig
Pearce and the director’s wife Catherine Martin, who designed both the sets and
costumes) have painted a colorful canvas with enough incidents, attractive
people, and lively music to hold an audience’s attention. But it’s no match for
the novel, which creates a mystique all its own and dazzles the reader with its
matchlessly graceful writing. That’s something that film, for all its qualities,
cannot duplicate.

 

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