Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Whether you fall under the spell of director Baz Luhrmann's glitzy, flamboyant spectacle likely depends on whether you've read and appreciated its source material, the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name. Literary purists, and perhaps even students of American economics or history, will be prone to dismiss this latest lavish film interpretation as one which misses the point; after all, wasn't Fitzgerald's classic intended to bemoan the excess and shortsightedness of wealthy, East Coast Jazz Age culture? Mr. Luhrmann appears here to celebrate it, or at least to be ambivalent. On the other hand, Mr. Luhrmann's rather distinct style has earned for him quite a fan base of his own, beginning with the unlikely success of 1996's MTV-esque Romeo + Juliet, (which starred a much younger version of Leonardo DiCaprio), and followed up with Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and with Australia in 2008. Interpretive critiques aside, then, his telling of Gatsby has been anticipated, and he has pulled out all of the stops with it stylistically, though at the risk of drowning his actors' performances and his story's original timeless themes in a deluge of CGI-enhanced camera work, anachronistic music, and explosions of glitter.

Mr. DiCaprio's turn in the title role is exceptional. The narrative transforms Gatsby from a mysterious, rarely seen tycoon into a vulnerable, tearful man in love; we feel like few other young actors today could have been as believable in this lead. Carey Mulligan does everything right in the role of Gatsby's love interest Daisy Buchanan, but unfortunately the camera doesn't study her the way it does her lover. Tobey McGuire plays Nick Carraway, the hopeful bonds broker who arrives in New York with wide eyes only to grow disgusted and disillusioned with the careless lifestyle of his Long Island neighbors; as in the novel, we are told the Gatsby story from Carraway's perspective, which legitimizes the first act's emphasis on shimmering revelry and drunken confusion but makes suspicious the second act's failure to adequately condemn the questionable attitudes and foolish actions of practically everyone Carraway meets before moving back west. For his part, McGuire's is a job well done but is not particularly notable. The same may be said of Elizabeth Debicki (as Jordan Baker, Daisy's flapper friend). Joel Edgerton is steady as a rock as Daisy's pompous, fillandering husband, Tom. A late scene at the famed Plaza Hotel in which he confronts Gatsby is very well done by all.

If you're not careful (we weren't!) you will have allowed Mr. Luhrmann to convince you--somewhere around the 90-minute mark--that everyone, except perhaps for the easy-to-hate Tom, will live happily ever after somehow. But even if you haven't read the novel you might guess that this can't end well. The times are too loose. Mr. Gatsby, a dreamer if ever there was one, is increasingly desperate. There is, in the end, "a haunting loneliness...young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life." And things haven't changed all that much. And we think--hope--that this is part of the film's message, with its modern 3D photography and hip-hop trappings: the follies of Mr. Fitzgerald's characters are follies suitable for any decade, any century.

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