By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby
DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
THE GREAT GATSBY (Four Stars) U.S.-Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2013 (Warner Bros,)
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”)
I. Razzle Bazzle Dazzle Frazzle
Baz Luhrmann’s often dazzling, sometimes excessive, frequently fascinating film of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece, The Great Gatsby—a movie that has been trashed by a number of critics—is not only no disaster. It’s one of the best movies of 2013. Predictably crammed with cinematic excess, and done in Luhrmann‘s (Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom) high style, it’s a stunningly imaginative, sometimes madly enjoyable show. At it‘s best, it makes a classic of literature come alive again on the screen in startling, voluptuously entertaining new and old ways.
To be honest, some of it (not a lot) is over the top, self-indulgent and no doubt annoying to literary purists (and some impurists)—but not so much that it cancels out, or even seriously diminishes the many pleasures that this Gatsby and its superb source, marvelous cast and first-rate technical people have to offer. I saw the movie twice and reread Fitzgerald‘s novel again—and, between them both, I’ve rarely had a better time in or out of the movies all year. Mulling over how much pleasure The Great Gatsby in both forms gave me, makes me sad that people were steered away from it.
Luhrmann’s new movie is not the Gatsby I envisioned as I read (and re-read) the novel. But I didn‘t expect it to be, and you shouldn‘t either. This film may not capture all the aesthetic brilliance and sexy allure of the book. (How could it?). But it gives us plenty to enjoy, and I enjoyed most of it: including the Luhrmann-Craig Pearce script, which keeps intact a lot of Fitzgerald’s lyrical narration and fizzy icy-liquor dialogue. This Gatsby is often as much Luhrmann’s—and his wife, production-costume designer Catherine Martin’s—as it is Fitzgerald’s. But it has a lot of the book in it, and the resulting mixture is snazzy, beguiling, Smart, exciting and marvelous to look at. And, of course, courtesy of Fitzgerald, it has a great story, which, contrary to what you may have heard, has not been botched and debauched out of all recognition.
To the contrary. Though Luhrmann’s stamp is all over the movie, it’s still a quite faithful version of the book (more so than the three previous Hollywood versions): a literary adaptation that preserves much of the original text, but is also encased in a dreamy, show-bizzy musical romp and an ultra-romantic Roaring Twenties movie-movie style that keeps going off in wild stylistic riffs.
There’s something admittedly kitschy and pop-operatic and even pop-grand-operatic about Luhrmann’s style here, even when the music isn’t playing (which isn’t often). It’s as if Verdi, while composing one of his Shakespearean operas (Falstaff or Otello), had also been able to include a lot of Shakespeare’s original spoken text and dialogue as well, and threw in “O Sole Mio“ for good measure. In this Gatsby though, the arias are usually Fitzgerald’s prose poems, spoken (very effectively, with a kind of morose reverie and regret) by Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. So we get the novel’s jewel-like words and phrases writhe across the screen in dancing subtitles, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s gorgeously alive prose.
In any case, I don’t think Luhrmann’s audacity with this material should be held against him—as if he’d committed some crime against art by not making the super-faithful, painstaking BBC miniseries version or respectful theatrical film that we wouldn’t expect from him anyway, and that somebody else can make later on. This is something different, a romantic musical Gatsby, a Gatsby for the new millennium. That’s part, of course, of what the movie’s detractors objected to. Perhaps because of all the hype, they’ve decided that Luhrmann is an ego-tripping revisionist show-off and that the book has been buried under the spectacular rubble.
But Fitzgerald’s classic novel is still the great animating force, inspiration and artistic structure behind the film and all its flights of fancy. Luhrmann so obviously loves and admires the book and wants to give it his best, that his Gatsby becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far (1926’s with gruff, glum Warner Baxter, 1949’s with suave Alan Ladd, and 1974’s with golden boy Robert Redford), but a sometimes truly fabulous entertainment, exploding past the book’s original, beautifully filled boundaries, shooting off like a black sky full of fireworks over a blazing dance floor packed with intoxicated revelers.
II. The Jazz Age
If ever a novel seemed perfectly matched to the movies, it’s Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.“ The plot seems born for MGM or Paramount in their glory silent years. Even as you read it, the lustrous, glamorous images burn into your memory. and the characters whirl and dance in your mind while they flirt and kibitz and drink gobs of expensive liquor—gyrating and Charlestoning their frantic way through parties and assignations on the lawns and beaches and vast mansions of the fictional Long Island domains of East Egg and West Egg.
Romance and sin and drama and glossy décor and beautiful people and huge, mind-boggling wealth and other cinematic mainstays are there, and so are some great, provocative literary themes and characters. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about the glamour and evil of money—as many movies were, especially in the Jazz Age—and it’s also about the glory and anguish of romance —as many movies are still, although usually they have happy endings and
(EXCUSE ME: SPOILER ALERT: roll over to reveal)
Gatsby, famously, doesn’t.
END OF ALERT
The central characters are not just rich, but super-rich or famous: Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance of poignant splendor), pretty fragile belle-of-the-ball Daisy Fay Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her wealthy, brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and her semi-androgynous golf pro crony Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki)—as well as the more modestly moneyed “poor boy“ Wall Street bond-seller Nick Carraway (Maguire) who acts as the tale‘s ironic, grieving, poetic observer and narrator. (Only in a story as plush and rich, yet openly critical, as The Great Gatsby could a bond-seller from a well-to-do family be regarded as a poor boy.) And there are the others, even poorer than Nick: Isla Fisher as Tom‘s crass juicy mistress Myrtle Wilson and Jason Clarke as Myrtle‘s hapless and haggard husband, gas station owner and car guy George.
Both book and movie are about affluent, selfish American hedonists like Tom and Daisy who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money,” “careless” spoilers who live in posh East Egg, Long Island, and who seduce (and maybe diminish or destroy) people like Gatsby, the one-time Western plains poor boy who’s risen to the New York City heights, and who foolishly wants to be like them, and to win at their games.
The story is narrated (in both novel and movie) by the character often described as Fitzgerald’s literary surrogate, Nick Carraway, who has moved into a cottage next door to the estate of society titan Gatsby—and who becomes Gatsby’s friend and confidante after Jay learns that Nick is the second cousin of the great love of Gatsby’s life: pretty Daisy of Louisville, Kentucky, whom Jay met and fell in love with before he went off to World War I. (Daisy, a character both real and deeply fallible, is at least partly modeled after Scott’s own radiant, emotionally disturbed wife Zelda—a novelist herself.)
In movie as in book, flashbacks (or revelations told to Nick) keep carrying us back into the past Gatsby wants so desperately to recapture, the nights of love and courtship in Louisville, Kentucky with Daisy—and the film revels in this fluidity of time. Then, after we learn of that devastating meeting and parting of Gatsby and Daisy—one of those intense romantic conjunctions that we never forget and never get over—we also learn the rest: how the lovers lost touch during the war and Daisy married rich all-American footballer/tennis/polo player and racist libertine Tom Buchanan (whose wealth is inherited and whose infidelities are legion), and moved into a mansion in the old money East Egg area on Long Island, just across the lake from what has now become Gatsby’s estate (and Nick’s cottage) in the new money West Egg area—far away, but close enough so Gatsby can see and tantalize himself with the haunting view off his pier of a flashing green light on the Buchanan estate, and Nick can tantalize himself with watching Gatsby watching it. In the rest of the story—which has one of the great American plots, besides being written so beautifully it stuns you—Gatsby woos Daisy again, and they all face the consequences.
Luhrmann’s movie is, as we said, faithful to its source. And where it deviates —as in having Nick writing the novel as therapy in an asylum where he’s being treated by a psychiatrist named Perkins (played by Aussie movie legend Jack Thompson) for, among other things “morbid alcoholism’—it has fairly good reasons and sometimes interesting results. That includes, amazingly, the use of a score with contemporary hip-hop music by executive producer Jay Z: an idea that disheartened me when I first heard about it, but which I accepted quickly on screen. (Perkins, by the way, was the last name of Fitzgerald’s—and Hemingway’s and Thomas Wolfe’s—legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins.)
We get a lot of Fitzgerald’s writing in the movie (sometimes in those writhing little scripts on screen) and that‘s another of the film’s strengths. Nick’s narration and most of the dialogue come largely out of the book—as opposed to the many film adaptations of major, narrated novels (like Mark Twain’s or Charles Dickens’ or Henry James‘) that simply, and, I think, mistakenly, jettison the original author’s words and prose, even though the words and prose are a large part of what made us love those books and writers in the first place. Rob The Great Gatsby of Nick’s painful, poetic, intoxicated reveries and you’ve lost much of what makes it great. That doesn’t happen here.
In DiCaprio, the movie also has, in its title role, one of the best Gatsbys (if not the best) imaginable: the star of Titanic and The Aviator and The Gangs of New York playing what now seems a nearly perfect part for him, and playing it perfectly. DiCaprio has a great look as Gatsby. He’s an Arrow Collar guy with wary eyes and a softly vulnerable smile, and his most frequent salutation, “Old Sport,” spoken in a deliberately artificial stage accent, is an almost touching pastiche of the British aristocracy and the American pseudo-aristocracy. The movie’s Jay Gatsby, a mystery man and an ultimate 1920s romantic, is a heartbreakingly sweet and reckless character and DiCaprio makes him a believably sweet and reckless soul—an eternal love-torn boyish climber who won’t let go of the past and is hell-bent on winning back Daisy.
A delusion? “You can’t bring back the past,“ Nick warns Gatsby, (No you can’t, but that‘s what movies routinely do.) Gatsby, radiating that “hope” and ‘romantic readiness” that Nick will sadly celebrate, answers buoyantly “Of course, you can.” Of course…You can buy anything. Why not the past? Or the future. (No you can’t.) Or even the present. (No. You can’t do that either —unless you move in the right circles.)
As for the rest of the cast, Edgerton, as Tom, very knowingly and powerfully incarnates the sometime cruelty of great, unearned wealth. Debicki is a properly saucy Jordan, Fisher an amusingly and sadly trashy Myrtle, Jason Clarke a hapless George (a man of ash living near the story‘s famed valleys of ashes) and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan has an anachronistic, dashing take on Gatsby‘s patron, Meyer Wolfsheim (supposedly the gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series).
The one casting problem for me was the Daisy of the usually admirable Carey Mulligan. The difficulty with this part—and Betty Field in 1949 and Mia Farrow in 1974 had similar problems with it —is that Daisy is someone loved unto death, beyond all reason, and even if we feel Gatsby is wrong to feel that way (and we probably do), we have to know why he does. We have to feel some part of what resonates so enduringly in his hopeful heart. Carey Mulligan is a sometimes-superb actress (as in An Education). But she’s more a brainy and sensitive gal than a heart-piercing or regal beauty (a Kidman, a Paltrow, a Wasikowska), and she (or maybe Luhrmann) have also chosen to have Mulligan play the part without enough of the high intensity, spark, and incandescence that would have made her more of a magnet. I should add that Mulligan gives a fine performance anyway. She‘s just not as perfect a match with the part as DiCaprio with his. Or as Maguire, whose Nick seems initially a well-contained, almost diffident witness and chronicler, the one rational guy around, but who also conveys a held-back yearning for Gatsby‘s approval that almost suggests Gatsby’s intense feeling for Daisy.
III. The Green Light
Finally, The Great Gatsby has a great look: a spectacular visual realization of the Roaring Twenties in New York, and the time’s orgies and gestalt. (The movie’s most compelling image, like the book’s, is the giant painting of bespectacled eyes, on the abandoned optometrist‘s billboard, near the Wilson gas station. The eyes of an absent God?) That fantastic style showcases CGI and 3D in highly creative ways—especially in the show’s great gaudy centerpiece, the first big Gatsby party that Nick attends, with both period 1920s songs and hip-hop blasting way, and people in snazzy ‘20s duds jumping up and down to the music (which ranges from Jay Z to Fats Waller to George Gershwin’s crashing, soaring “Rhapsody in Blue,“ accompanied by fireworks), all bobbing like apples and candies and colored lights in a moonlit tide.
Together Luhrmann and Martin (and the company) have created their own little world of artifice and nostalgia, set in a dreamy fabrication of 1922 Long Island and Manhattan (actually shot in Luhrmann’s and Martin’s native Australia), a romantic-fantasy domain that knocks your eyes out again and again. It’s a world that, especially in the party scenes, makes you feel happily drunk—a feeling that fits, since the story is taken from a novel (like Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 “The Thin Man”) about people who drink too much, written by a self-indulgent genius of a writer who drank too much—and though The Great Gatsby’s narrator Nick Carraway tells us he‘s only been drunk twice, we may find it hard to believe him, at least without taking a few snorts ourselves.
This is Luhrmann’s Gatsby (yet Fitzgerald’s also). But the novel’s original qualities shine though as well. It becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far, but for me, an instant classic.
So why has the film been so vehemently attacked, so nastily axed? Maybe because it’s an adaptation of a book now routinely selected by people with good literature credentials as the Great American Novel, or at least one of them (with “Huckleberry Finn,” “Moby Dick,” “The Portrait of a Lady” and a few others), and many serious movie critics like to prove that they’re not seduced by a film’s literary pedigree into giving a good review, and also maybe that they’ve read the book and are appalled at the cinematic havoc wreaked.
And maybe because Baz Luhrmann, now routinely savaged by some as the crazy Aussie madman of the movies, has the kind of go-for-broke technique that either mightily entertains you or just plain rubs you the wrong way —a flamboyant, dare-anything style like Orson Welles’ in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, which was a film a lot of the original preview audience certainly thought was over the top, off the edge, and out to lunch. Now we think it’s magnificent. Maybe some day too, as with that F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that was rejected back in 1925, we’ll think the movie Gatsby is great.