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Good and Bad Surprises in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

Good and Bad Surprises in Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

Novel? What novel? I went into Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D, Jay Z-soundtracked
The Great Gatsby assuming that the kindest, smartest approach would be to forget
there was ever a book  behind it. Surprisingly,
the film is more attached to F. Scott Fitzgerald than I expected, and that
turns out to be its downfall.

As he showed in Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann is a visionary, but his vision here is entirely focused
on eye candy. He delivers the extravagance of Gatsby’s world, the wild,
colorful 1920’s parties with flappers, fireworks and champagne  – the easy, shallow part. Yet he is also tethered
to Fitzgerald’s words, while failing to approach Gatsby‘s romantic, idealistic, heartbreaking soul. It might have
been better if he had forgotten there
was a novel, too.

 The problems start with Nick Carraway, whose role as the book’s
narrator is justified on screen by placing him in a sanitarium  – the film’s invention – where he has been diagnosed
as “morbidly alcoholic.” Part of his treatment is writing about his
experience of Gatsby. The conceit doesn’t get in the way, but Tobey Maguire’s flatly
delivered voiceover does. It’s Nick, of course, who tells Gatsby’s story, who recalls
moving into a small summer house next to Gatsby’s mansion on Long island, hearing
the rumors about his mysterious criminal past, and who discovers that Gatsby’s spectacular
life is part of his attempt to regain Nick’s cousin, Daisy, now married to the
brutish Tom Buchanan. Gatsby is the central figure, but the story belongs to
Nick; he has to be observant and analytical, not the cipher Maguire’s lackluster
performance creates.  (Find out about two better Nicks and two other Gatsbys here.)

 You’d think the film would have bigger problems, like the hip
hop music beating behind the 1920’s, but that isn’t such a bad idea after all. Most
of the contemporary songs are used for party scenes, which are already so
over-the-top that the anachronistic music becomes part of the circus. And the film
mixes up its musical periods, using “Ain’t Misbehavin” during a scene
in the New York apartment Tom rents for his girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson (Isla
Fisher) .

We’ve already seen a lot of that circus by the time Gatsby
himself appears. And here is the film’s one good surprise: Leonardo DiCaprio,
who seems so stiff and wrong in the trailers, is wonderful as Gatsby. He’s wonderful
even though our first sight of him is laughable. At one of Gatsby’s parties, a
man turns to face Nick – and the camera – says, “I’m Gatsby,” and we see
fireworks explode behind him as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays. Although
Luhrmann surely realizes that the scene is stylized and excessive, just the way
the wide-eyed Nick would have experienced it, that doesn’t make it less
ludicrous to watch. That is DiCaprio’s only silly scene. He gives a beautifully
modulated performance, knowing just when to move from the stiffness of a man uncomfortable
in the world he has tried so hard to conquer, and when to display the
passionate romanticism that leads him to look so longingly at the green light
across the bay on Daisy’s dock, and to believe he can reinvent the past the way
he reinvented himself, turning impoverished James Gatz into the rich, influential
Jay Gatsby. His posture changes and his features relax when he is at ease with

 Daisy is a fairly hopeless role to begin with; she is
idealized by Gatsby, but nothing very special to the rest of the world, ultimately
as vapid as her husband. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy doesn’t even come to life with
Gatsby. Joel Edgerton shrewdly doesn’t overplay Tom’s brutality.

 Luhrmann allows what looks like bad CGI in creating the
“Valley of Ashes,” the shabby stretch between Long Island and Manhattan
that Gatsby’s bright yellow car races through. The use of 3-D is pointless. Those
are surprising lapses considering that for long periods he seems to care about
nothing except grand, sweeping visuals. The famous scene in which Gatsby shows
Daisy his house, and she weeps over his beautiful shirts, has DiCaprio tossing shirts
over a balcony at Daisy below.

 But as the film heads toward its tragic end, Luhrmann becomes
more insistent in his use of Nick’s voiceover. On some level, Luhrmann grasps what
has made The Great Gatsby so enduring:
it is about Gatsby’s self-invention, about his idealism and soaring romanticism,
and his inevitable crash to earth. But what sounds eloquent on the page becomes
too  pointed on screen. In this misbegotten
film, DiCaprio is left alone to try to carry the purity of the story – an attempt
as heroic and as doomed as Gatsby’s.

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