Saturday, May 11, 2013


“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the greatest novels in the history of literature, and my all-time favorite book, so I had to review this new movie adaptation of the classic Jazz Era work that just opened. And I am happy to report that the film is a triumph, an inspired and focused adaptation of Fitzgerald’s most popular work.

While the story has been fully translated to the big screen four different times, as well as for the small screen in 2000, no one's done a better job of capturing both the story’s surface extravagance and inner loneliness. Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (MOULIN ROUGE) has given it a big, theatrical spin and I think it’s absolutely apropos for a study of the rich “Roaring 20’s”. Some may quibble that it’s all a bit too lush and loud, but I think the memory of narrator Nick Carraway would get carried away in his remembrances. Memories of events tend to do that, seeming much more vivid than they were at the time. And while his recollection of the events in the world of Gatsby are remembered as gorgeous, Carraway's memory doesn’t shy away from remembering the ugliness just under the surface of all this illusionary glamour too. Nor does Luhrmann's film.

The story of Jay Gatsby, the self-invented man who’s chasing a lost love and the memory of a purer time that goes with it, has fascinated audiences for almost 100 years since its publication in 1925. And the book is still selling strong, currently atop the New York Times bestseller list as well as's list too. ( I’m sure the film's buzz helps immensely but the book remains a continual strong seller, enthralling one generation after another, and that’s because of its timeless telling of reinvention and lost innocence. Its commentary on class systems, prejudices, celebrity and our nation's corruption is perhaps even more relevant to today’s 'keeping up with the Kardashians' world.

And in the moneyed time of Jay Gatsby, he’s come into his wealth through equally dubious means as anything that Kim and her clan have done. Gatsby may act like a savvy businessman, and the key word there is act, but he’s really the pretty face of a mob making money hand over fist running illegal booze and bond schemes. Nonetheless, Gatsby thinks his ‘new money’ will impress his old girlfriend Daisy Buchanan, now snuggling comfortably in ‘old money’ up in the Hamptons. He buys a huge mansion across the bay from the home of Daisy and her boorish hubby Tom and thinks that his new means will allow him to win her back. But money cannot buy happiness, of course, and ultimately Gatsby’s naiveté will be his downfall. He believes you can buy the past and wrongly believes in a good in Daisy that doesn’t exist.

Luhrmann’s take on Fitzgerald connects these themes with today’s audience by using all the cinematic techniques at his disposal. Quick cuts, eye-popping 3-D depth of field, pulsing hip-hop songs on the soundtrack – they bring this timeless work to immediate, modern life. And his youthful cast reminds us of how green, both in money and experience, Fitzgerald’s characters truly were. Gatsby is handsome and larger-than-life in the story so how perfect is it that uber-celebrity/actor Leonardo DiCaprio plays him here?

DiCaprio works wonders with his tricky role. He’s both enigmatic and painfully human as the title character. Gatsby looks to the manor born and can truly rock a pink pinstripe suit, but  DiCaprio lets us see the uncertainty present in the former Jay Gatz's eyes. He's faking the part of the rich playboy, and DiCaprio captures the layers of the illusion beautifully. He even stretches out the vowels when he speaks Gatsby's favorite colloquialism - “old sport”. Gatsby is always trying a little too hard and DiCaprio understands that and makes his character vulnerable and tragic throughout in words as well as deeds.

Tobey Maguire makes for an ideal Carraway, nicely shy and timid in his body language, yet with eyes bursting with desire and awe. Australian Joel Edgerton perfectly suites the insensitive and brutish rich boy Tom, who no matter how refined his wardrobe is or how fussy his mustache is, they cannot hide the fact that he’s a snotty, frat boy who’s never worked a day in his life and acts like everyone is his servant. And Carey Mulligan says more with her hurt eyes than with Daisy’s few lines. She is named so because she’s beautiful, delicate and all too easily bent by the whim of the wind. In many ways Daisy is the true villain of the piece, recklessly abandoning any sense of responsibility for her actions throughout. She wrongly enables her husband’s garish behavior and tragically leads Gatsby on, letting him nurse the belief that they can repeat their past. And Mulligan resists playing the role with any sympathy.

The only actor who doesn’t quite work here is Elizabeth Dibicki as the athletic Jordan Baker. She’s expert at playfully toying with affections in her scenes with Nick, but her ‘Emo Girl’ looks don’t exactly fit a golfer who spends a lot of time out on the links. I also think that Luhrmann gave short shrift to the characters of Tom’s mistress Myrtle (An underused Isla Fisher) and her cuckolded husband (Jason Clarke). Director Jack Clayton did far better with these crucial supporting parts, played by Karen Black and Scott Wilson, in his 1974 big screen version, and that is the only place where that older film trumps this new one.

Books written in a first-person narrative often struggle onscreen. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993) is a fine film, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose, told from the viewpoint of central character James Stevens, didn’t quite come alive with pictures primarily telling the story. The same is true with Jay McInery’s BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY (1988), as well as many others screenplay adaptations. To avoid that problem, Luhrmann lets Nick narrate throughout, with Fitzgerald’s memorable prose front and center in many scenes. But it doesn’t seem intrusive as Luhrmann has created a framing device that's not in the book. He starts with Nick drying out in a local sanitarium. His physician suggests he put his story down on paper to help alleviate his depression. It’s a bold narrative move on Luhrmann's part and it allows for a lot of Fitzgerald’s famous prose to shine in Nick's voice-over, with the words even animating atop the action at times.

The whole film is filled with bold moves like that. Luhrmann shoots his actors against green screen and that allow for the 3-D to pop more. It even gives the appearance of his film, that Andrew Duggan has beautifully shot, a similar look to period pieces from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The automobile scenes then were almost always shot against a filmed backdrop, and Luhrmann nicely pays tribute to that old school style of filmmaking here with his car work shot in studio. 
Director Baz Luhrmann

And for those who think that Luhrmann has gilded the lily with too much pomp and circumstance, that’s precisely the point. Gatsby’s world is all about the material, and it's done to impress Daisy and the high society types whom he desperately wants acceptance from. But if she’s persuaded by his rainbow collection of Arrow shirts, we in the audience shouldn’t be. It’s all a very shallow existence, and a gold cage is nothing without substance within. And such riches seem more than a bit garish so close up, don't they? Hence, Luhrmann's in-your-face style of moviemaking here.

Luhrmann brought WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO & JULIET to startling, vibrant life for a new audience back in 1996, and he reinvented the modern movie musical with MOULIN ROUGE five years later. Now, with his audacious take on the corruption of the American dream, I believe he’s rendered Gatsby wholly accessible for new eyes. At the end of the film, Nick changes the title of his memoir from “Gatsby” to “The Great Gatsby”. It’s ironic of course, as Jay Gatsby was far from greatness. But Baz Luhrmann’s film of THE GREAT GATSBY truly achieves it.  

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