May 12, 2013

The Not-So-Great Gatsby

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“All the bright precious things fade so fast and they don’t come back,” Daisy Buchanan utters in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of the classic book The Great Gatsby, which reportedly cost $125 million to make, not to mention the marketing extravaganza that has assaulted consumers over the past year and which has only intensified over the last few months. In the film Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) brown eyes are smoky and plaintive, glittery orbs dangle from her ears and she is dressed in a breathtaking vintage gown, ruffled and exquisite — I wanted to love her like Gatsby loves her and like millions of people around the world have loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, but I just couldn’t.

Perhaps it is because of the heavy-handed conceit Luhrmann uses to tell the story. The writers have made the narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an alcoholic and relegated him to a sanitarium where he speaks, and then types, his woeful tale — Carraway’s typed words float, superimposed, on the screen at various points in the movie. Luhrmann tries to, literally, have Fitzgerald’s words speak for themselves. The effect feels more like being beaten over the head with a battered copy of Fitzgerald’s book in what appears to be an attempt to heighten the viewer’s nostalgia — “you read this book in junior year of high school, remember how much you loved it?”

That is not to say that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is all bad. Luhrmann, who is best-known for Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia, has made his mark as a director and writer with flashy, over-the-top films. His trademark style holds in Gatsby — when Luhrmann does big, he does it on an awe-inspiring scale. The movie’s party scenes were, without exception, pure gilded perfection: ribald and raucous, all cocktails and swinging flappers and strings of confetti. The scene where Myrtle and Tom (Isla Fisher and Joel Edgerton) cavort in their love nest, taps out a triumphant melody of the gaudy, strident and nauseating; it is adrenaline-spiked and dizzying in its excess and alcoholic haze. Much of Gatsby has this shiny, hazy feel to it; appropriate if Carraway is indeed an alcoholic but it also makes the movie slippery and unreal. I kept trying to get a finger hold in Gatsby to make sense of all the glitter and ostentation; but there was nothing solid or meaningful to hold on to.

Some of Fitzgerald’s scenes couldn’t possibly go wrong on screen, as Fitzgerald had spelled them out so perfectly. Even the 1974 The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford — a notoriously limp and lifeless flop, out of the ordinary precisely because it was so ordinary — got the shirt-throwing scene right; this Gatsby does too, with a vibrant rainbow of silky shirts fluttering down on Daisy in a cascade that seems never-ending, set to a soundtrack of her giggles and protestations.

The 2013 Gatsby, though ever-faithful to the book’s classic plot, rarely transcends it. One moment in the movie when I wanted to applaud this remake was the scene where, after five years apart, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy reunite for tea in Nick’s tiny shack. Gatsby tries to orchestrate the meeting to perfection, with an army of gardeners marching into Nick’s pitiful front yard with pots and pots of blooming white flowers, until the living room looks like a greenhouse and it seems there is hardly room for all three of them there (there isn’t — Nick promptly leaves to stand in the rain). Gatsby is a nervous wreck, face red and veins bulging, tugging at his white suit; ultimately escaping out the window as Daisy is entering the house. Gatsby’s subsequent reentry, dripping rain and agitation, stammering once face-to-face with a five-year-long yearning, brings a vigor to the movie that, frankly, isn’t seen again.

Ambivalence and Gatsby have never been two things that go together, and yet I felt detached in the darkened movie theatre Friday, despite the vivid debauchery, glitter and beauty superimposed in front of me. The movie was all Gatsby, almost entirely faithful to the plot, to descriptions of scenes and to the characters themselves, and yet, it was not great. In his haste to make the movie big — filming it in 3D, promoting it like the summer blockbuster it will undoubtedly be, casting big actors — Luhrmann lost the less-glamorous parts of Gatsby, which are perhaps more essential than the parties and the big houses. Luhrmann couldn’t make the themes of Gatsby as bright as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock or as fast and furious as the revving of Gatsby’s yellow car, and the movie suffers because of it.

Luhrmann certainly tried to present Gatsby’s themes of corruption, delusion and the violation of the American Dream on a silver, gilded platter, emblazoned with Jay Gatsby’s initials; but his overbearing tactics left the platter hollow, ringing with inadequacy.

The Great Gatsby is about love and people and money. Luhrmann’s movie is about those things too. If you want to see a story about a woman who was loved by two men to a soundtrack of Jay-Z and Beyonce and Lana del Ray (whose haunting “Young and Beautiful” is one of the few songs that fits the movie perfectly); if you want to see Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio, you will like Gatsby. But if you are hoping for anything more, it will be a profound disappointment.

Unlike Fitzgerald’s book, this Gatsby will fade, and fast.

Original Author: Emma Court

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