** (2 stars)
d - Baz Luhrmann
w - Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (Based on the Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
ph - Scott Duggan
pd - Catherine Martin
m - Craig Armstrong
ed - Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond
cos - Catherine Martin
p - Baz Luhrmann, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Martin, Catherine Knapman
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a strange movie. This is something that I think people will not appreciate about the picture when they see it. People also don’t appreciate – or even readily remember – that the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, that of which has fallen into the synthetic, bedazzled clutches of Mr Luhrmann, was not an instant classic. In fact, quite the contrary. The novel was only taken into serious consideration once World War II ended, well after Mr Fitzgerald’s death. Thus I have found humanity’s preciousness towards the novel more than a little perplexing. This might have more to do with Jack Clayton’s dull and dubious cinematic adaptation in 1974. Ergo I believe the best way to enjoy this brash and boisterous new version is to lock away whatever erudite apprehension you are inclined to convoy along with you.
I do understand the burden of artistic importance that the novel carries. I myself consider it one of the great works of 20th century American literature. But the film is Mr Luhrmann’s, not Mr Fitzgerald’s, and try as he might – of which he certainly does – there was no way that a filmmaker of Mr Luhrmann’s clamorous and at times shallow aesthetic would be able to convey, let alone capture, the disconsolate scintillation and distressing yet graceful insight of Mr Fitzgerald’s prose. But despite being overlong, far too verbose and containing some misguided flourishes and some ineffective performances, I think Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby works. Like I said, strange.
The film follows the plot of the novel almost to a T. Most of the novel’s classic lines are either uttered or operated, including, say, the first. The only major diversion (from Mr Luhrmann and frequent co-writer Craig Pearce) is the story’s frame, which in the novel was a thoughtful recollection and here is a manuscript being typed away in a sanatorium. The typing in question is by a man named Nick Carraway. The year is 1922 (quite a year), the place, New York (quite a place) and young Nicky (Tobey Maguire) has moved into a bungalow on the nouveau-riche Long Island cul-de-sac of West Egg. Athwart the bay is the old-moneyed civic of East Egg, where Nick's cousin, the glittering socialite Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), lives with her underhanded, highborn aggressor of a husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton).
But everyone, regardless of where they're from, gathers each weekend for rough and uninhibited parties at Gatsby's extravagant residence – next door to Nick’s. The generally secretive Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) befriends Nick with hopes of reconnecting with Daisy, the one who got away five years earlier. The one far more in-the-know to all of the goings-on is Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Daisy’s best friend and a professional golfer. She also seems to be the only person around who cares what Nick has to say on the subject, or any subject.
These are mighty characters, and if cast improperly, may become parodic. But one must remember who is directing this adaptation and therefore parody here is like a side of vegetables. The cast attempts to inject life – they do this using the old humanistic stereotypes that are “walking” and “talking” and “crying” and “laughing”- but since this is a fool’s errand from the outset, one ends up with a mixed bag, sometimes within the same character.
When the casting of Mr DiCaprio and Ms Mulligan were announced, I childishly objected. I feared that they might be more of a doublet of extended ideas than fully-fleshed people. He too substantial, she too cloudy. Having seen the movie, I think maybe my judgment was a silly one: they could have played Gatsby and Daisy and I'm not sure it's their fault they don’t. Mr Maguire’s Carraway is an uninspired creation, as are Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher’s The Wilsons. None of them are given much room for interpretation. Mr Edgerton is rather striking as Tom if a little under-developed. It’s Ms Debicki who stands out as Jordan, juicy and delightful at every turn. What we have here is an ensemble that, when observed individually, lack deftness, however, seen together under their director’s vision they attain and realize with gusto.
It doesn’t really matter anyway because Mr Luhrmann’s star in all of his films is Catherine Martin, his production and costume designer (and wife). She is one of the greatest in her field and her work here is no exception, filling (with DP Simon Duggan) every frame with a spectacle of colour and ostentatious glamour. Her director’s artistic sensibility containing traits such as hyperkinetic editing, swirling, dizzying cinematography (this time even more so in 3D) and anachronistic music heighten the construction of a world, rather than just a depiction of one. Like the Paris of Moulin Rouge (2001), this is a world in which no one has ever existed in. Mr Luhrmann doesn't want his audience to simply watch the movie, he wants them to interact with it.
The rest of the time, Mr Luhrmann does the other thing he loves to do, which is hoard old movies. On tonight’s menu we have Kubrick, Allen, Powell and Pressburger, Lubitsch, Minnelli and others. Despite all of the nonsense, all of the opportunism, all of the unwise and ponderous commercial decisions, the message of the novel comes through. Many scenes carry a poignant power and there's an utmost respect for the author from everyone concerned. The Great Gatsby will no doubt be prosecuted for having no heart. But the truth is just the opposite. The movie has so much heart that the poor overworked organ explodes in every scene. What it lacks is a mind. A mind of its own.