Mania Grade: C+
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- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Amitabh Bachchan, Elizabeth Debicki and Isla Fisher
- Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
- Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
- Studio: Warner Bros
- Rating: PG-13
- Run Time: 143 minutes
Mania Review: The Great Gatsby
Could have been greater...
By Rob Vaux
May 10, 2013
Can a filmmaker love his source material too much? Baz Luhrmann appears to with his bold new version of The Great Gatsby. He clearly adores the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; more importantly, he profoundly understands its dark message about the excesses of the Jazz Age and the ways history is repeating itself in the 21st century. No other filmmaker is so uniquely equipped to bring Fitzgerald’s vision to life on screen. And yet, he embraces the text so closely that he can’t seem to part with a word of it.
I don’t mean that figuratively. He transcribes entire passages of Fitzgerald’s prose into burdensome voice-over narrative, smashed on top of the existing drama in the most egregious use of the technique since the original release of Blade Runner. What lies beneath it could have been a masterpiece… a masterpiece that gets kicked square in the nuts every time Tobey Maguire’s disembodied voice floats across the soundtrack.
It’s not Maguire’s fault, of course. As Nick Carraway, observer and confidant of the titular bootlegging millionaire, he makes a perfectly respectable audience surrogate. Carraway is an outsider to the posh New York social scene of the 1920s, a scene dominated by the likes of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). They’re old money, having forgotten the greed and ambition that pushed their forefathers to the top of the social food chain and now accepting their status as divine right.
More to the point, they don’t do anything with their fortune beyond living extravagantly and dismissing any real-world problems with a wad of cash. That’s why Mr. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) rankles Tom so much. He’s an up-and-comer, having made his fortune on his own through suspect means and now eagerly seeking what they possess without effort. Daisy, in particular, becomes a source of fixation: the girl who got away, whom Gatsby now intends to reclaim with every resource at his disposal.
Though Luhrmann streamlines the narrative to a fair extent, he also understands the yearning that drives it forward: Gatsby’s powerful desire for an unattainable dream, and the way he must hide it behind a façade if he hopes to swim with these sharks successfully. The director knows full well the power of façades, as well as how hollow the spaces behind it can become. His frantic, hallucinogenic pace finds fertile ground in the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, from the surreal cityscape of a booming Manhattan to the bacchanalian parties at Gatsby’s estate. (And let’s face it, if we can’t see Luhrmann’s take on a Gatsby party, there’s really no point to this at all.)
The controversial addition of hip-hop to the soundtrack actually adds a great deal to this atmosphere. Rightly or wrongly, we view the music of the era as antiquated, almost quaint. That wasn’t how it played back in the day. It was seductive, dangerous, and more than a little off-putting to the establishment of the time. Why not let a more modern sound remind us of that fact?
The symbolism of the novel receives a potent treatment here too, starting with the hypnotic green light from the Buchanans’ dock that draws Gatsby to them. The menacing rush of his yellow Duesenberg, the faded ocular billboard awaiting his downfall, it all roars to life with unquestionably cinematic verve. One early shot sends us high over the landscape before plunging down the side of a Manhattan skyscraper: exhilarating in its fatalism and perfectly encapsulating the brutal rush that Fitzgerald knew all too well. Luhrmann not only grasps it, he grasps how to conjure it in his own language. It’s over-the-top and too obvious at times, to be sure. But those expecting anything else clearly don’t know this director, whose boldness precludes subtlety in any form.
He coaxes similarly expansive performances from his cast, starting with DiCaprio, whose Gatsby here embodies cool self-assurance and barely-controlled passion in equal measures. As his nemesis, Edgerton is more than a match for him; his every movement carries unspoken menace, such that you can scarcely stand to be in the same room with him for fear he’ll slap the taste out of your mouth on a whim. Mulligan’s Daisy is fragile and tragic without losing her essential callousness, while supporting figures like Isla Fisher (as Tom’s mistress Myrtle) and Amitabh Bachchan (as Gatsby’s gangster associate) find the right spirit of things with nary a hiccup.
The 3D actually works quite well in this regard. Luhrmann’s camera stresses the distances between his performers, with one actor often standing in the foreground and another in the background. We’re drawn to their proximity in ways that a 2D image couldn’t achieve, and while it’s not strictly necessary, it does make for a nice artistic flourish.
So with all that, why does Luhrmann insist on straitjacketing it with such a cumbersome framework? The film opens with a new framing device, unused in the book: a despondent Nick relating the facts to a sympathetic doctor in an asylum. The device stays true to the novel’s first-person POV, but also stresses emotions that need no embellishing. Every moment, it seems, is accompanied by another laborious line explaining who is feeling what and why just to make sure we don’t miss a thing. It’s a poor fit and Luhrmann seems to know it: Nick eventually turns to a typewriter to tell his story, with phantom words floating in the air in a mad attempt to keep up with the kaleidoscopic images beneath them.
The technique sabotages a great deal of the film’s effectiveness, as we dive headlong into this world only to be wrenched out of it time and again by that nagging dialogue. The Great Gatsby’s style and energy could handily vanquish most shortcomings, but this one proves all but insurmountable. We’re left with a heartbreaking sense of a masterpiece lost, of a possibly definite screen version brought back to earth because it lacked the conviction to take flight on its own terms. I suppose that’s in keeping with the spirit of the piece, but even so, the text’s hold is still too tight. The Great Gatsby tells us what it should be showing, even as that show unfurls in grand, inimitable style. Luhrmann of all people should really know better.