May 2, 2013

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (d. Luhrmann)

Ever since I heard Baz Lurhann was filming a 3-D version of The Great Gatsby I've been hopeful but nervous: Moulin Rouge and Australia had all the delicacy of drag acts bellowing at hecklers. On the other hand, I loved Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet, and both Di Caprio and Luhrmann have enough of the mythomaniac about them to channel Fitzgerald's improbable, pink-suited bootlegger.  As for the 3-D, bring it on. If anyone was going to recreate the spectroscopic gayety of Fitzgerald's book it was Luhramann, who knows how to throw a party. Here, we get dancing girls, fountains, spumes of champagne, cameras tracing the arc of confetti,  even what looks like a 1920s version of ecstasy which causes downtown Manhattan to go all wiggy on Tobey Maguire. It's all very impressive yet slightly boring at the same time, falling afoul of that old law of cinema that states: no act of Dionysian revelry is ever quite as exciting to watch as it was to conceive. And Luhrmann is nothing if not a filmmaker of immaculate conceptions, his film a brochure of gorgeous images, like someone leafing through a Prada catalogue, with the effect that anyone who has seen a trailer for this movie already has an unnervingly accurate sense-memory of what it actually feels like to watch. 

Take Gatsby's entrance: a famous drop-shot in which Nick Carraway is taken in by a stranger at one of Gatsby's bashes, only for the stranger to let slip that he is, in fact, Gatsby himself. It's a wonderful, weightless moment, but Luhrmann botches it with elephantine emphasis: at the words "I'm Gatsby", we get the climax of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the soundtrack, a fireworks display erupting in the background and the sound of Tobey Maguire describing Gatsby's smile for those members of the audience without the gift of sight:   "He had the kind of smile that seemed to believe you and understand you as you wanted to be believed and understood..." We can see that. It's Leonardo frigging Di Caprio. To that old rule of cinema we can now add another: no act of Dionysian revelry is quite as laborious as the one narrated in voiceover by Tobey Maguire. He's all over this movie, regrettably, patiently explaining the effects his fellow actors are trying to pull off ("....with every word Daisy retreated further into herself"). Luhrmann has clearly tried his utmost to rev up Maguire's notoriously lethargic delivery, he still he manages the excitement levels of a small vole, recently awoken from hibernation by the roaring twenties and now anxious to get back to sleep. 

I was a full  30 minutes into this film before anything really clicked. It came during Gatsby's big reunion scene with Daisy, as Di Caprio fusses with some flowers in anticipation of her arrival — no big moment but it gets a laugh, so relieved is the audience to encounter anything as recognisable as date jitters. The entire film rests on di Caprio's shoulders. If Lurhmann's Gatsby finds its audience, it will be because of the desire, nurtured by large swathes of the population, to find out whatever happened to that nice young man in Titanic, before he got all scuzzed up for Martin Scorsese, and does he still look good in a tux? The answer is a resounding yes, although the real artistry of di Caprio's performance rests in the entwining of the two stray halves of his career, delivering both burnished movie star and  Scorsesean wild side: listen to him  roar as he tears across the room to silence Tom Buchanan at the Plaza hotel. Redford was never this roused, barely allowing himself to break sweat, but Di Caprio looses the obsession at the heart of Fitzgerald's millionaire.  His Gatsby is an obsessive coming apart at the seams,  a recluse hounded by the newspapers, the first celebrity nutbag — a prequel, of sorts, to Di Caprio's turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. 

You realise what Lurhmann has done here. If Fitzgerald's book was about money, Luhrmann's version is about celebrity — an understandable recallibration, even as it renders even more indistinct the class fissures tearing Gatsby and Daisy apart. Their relationship was never a model of clarity.   As Fitzgerald wrote Max Perkins:
“The worst fault in it is a big fault; I gave no account (and had no feeling or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Daisy and Gatsby from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However the lack is so astutely covered by the retrospect of Gatsby past and by blankets of excellent prose that nobody has noticed” 
The Redford version  had a solution to all this: montages, all tennis whites and lawn-fed languor, filmed through  lens so smeared with vaseline you wonder the operator managed to get it on the camera. The gauziness was fitting. As much as Fitzgerald's prose mimics the sensation of falling in and then out of love with Daisy,  the suspicion has always lingered that not only is she unequal to the weight of Gatsby's desires, but viewed in the cold light of day, undeserving  (“For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery"). The thankless task of turning her into a romantic heroine goes this time to Carey Mulligan, an actress whose forte is soft-throated vulnerability and therefore not at her absolute best when posing coquettishly between orchids. Mulligan does her best to go digging for a part without making much of an advance  on the gasps and giggles Mia Farrow came up with in 1974; as for the scene in which pulls away from a clinch with Di Caprio with the line  "Why can't we just gave fun like we used to?" I thought I heard a thousand teenage gasps at such heresy. Luhrmnn's ambition to film the iGeneration's Gone With The Wind just went splat into the brickwork.    

Nobody could begrudge this film its fabulousness but make no mistake that what Luhrmann purveys is a species of cinematic camp, with the emotional tinniness that implies. He mounts huge pop-art embellishments on the theme of certain emotions — the look of them, the sound of them, the pop cultural density of them — without the bother of actually going through with them. He makes a fetish of romance without feeling it: it's telling that the film's sex scene is slipped under the mat in the form of  — yes — a montage.  His valentine of a movie, it turns out, is not aimed at Daisy, nor Gatsby. 
"If there's something you would change, just say"
"It's all perfect. Sprung from your irresistable imagination."
 It's hard to mistake the compliment Luhrmann is paying himself here: by the final reel, the film is one long air-kiss to it's own visionary prowess, a character study of a chronic perfectionist that is also made by one.  The movie ends with Di Caprio breaking the surface of his pool, alone at last, as if letting the burden of this handsome, hectic movie slip from his bronzed shoulders. How strange that this most phantasmal of characters should, in Di Caprio's rendering, be the most rock-solid presence in the film. B-


  1. >Luhrmann is not so much a romantic as a chronic fetishist of romance.<

    Well said.

  2. As above. Also surprised to see the B-. The review read like a mediocre C- the whole way.

  3. Great review. This is my most eagerly anticipated film of the year (which is not at all to say I think it will be the best).

    Interesting, however, that you criticise the redundant voice over of that particular excerpt of the book. I just read it for the first time, latecomer/Philistine that I am, and I turned down the corner of just one page because I came across a paragraph that took my breath away with its insight and description. That very one. It is one thing to see the wonderful DiCaprio do that smile, but I would say entirely justified to hear Carraway interpret/describe its effect on the recipient. THAT would be hard to convey without words.

    I don't doubt, however, that I shall agree that much of Maguire's laconic VO just gets annoying. I look forward to finding out!

  4. I cannot imagine that there will be a review that is better written than this first one. I am so looking forward to this movie as a fan of the book and of Romeo+Juliet (not, as you say, the hysterical and over-blown Moulin Rouge or Australia) and from this it sounds like he's done it. Some of the things you object to (Daisy not being good enough and Carraway's bored, laconic voice-over) are, I think, essential to understanding the book, though this may not work in the cinema.

    I was worried, now I am intrigued.

  5. Dearest Tom,

    You forgot to check your copy ... you've spelled Luhrmann differently several times within your blog - oops!

  6. Luhrmann wasn't always fetishistic about romance, watch Strictly Ballroom.

  7. Nothing about Joel Edgerton? He stole each scene in the trailers.

  8. I feel like your description of Maguire's performance is actually quite on par with the Nick Carraway of the novel. He isn't an exciting character and is largely thought of to be simple and quite boring. I think - if anything - Maguire's lethargic delivery adds to the character of Nick. Changing that would be going against the novel which would be sacrilegious.

  9. Bless Tobey his thin-lipped drowsiness - he's no Sam Waterson let alone Nick Carraway.

  10. It's "loses", not "looses".

    1. Looses as in releases. Both Jay and Mr. S. went to Oxford, don't you know.

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  13. I can't wait for the movie. I loved the book. I should agree this is the best written book.
    Movie is going to rock ....
    the movie fifty shades
    Characters have played tehre role very nicely hoping best for movie...

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