The Great Gatsby

May 10, 2013

in Movies

Film (2013)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Original Music: Craig Armstrong; Cinematography: Simon Duggan; Film Editing: Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond, Matt Villa; Casting: Nikki Barrett, Ronna Kress; Production Design: Catherine Martin

With Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker)

Gloria Swanson (1924) by Edward Steichen

Gloria Swanson (1924)
by Edward Steichen

A lot of visual effects in 3D supersede the psychological ones in this lollapalooza production that is more likely to interest CGI (computer generated imagery) fans than literary ones.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is troubled. He drinks and broods over his lost relationship with the “great” Jay Gatsby. His therapist, a psychoanalyst inclined towards literary cures, encourages him to write about Gatsby, and we get Nick’s account (also entitled “The Great Gatsby”) of Gatsby’s fateful relationship with Daisy Buchanan.

We watch the dramatized reminiscence unfold as Gatsby, situated across a bay on Northern Long Island from Daisy and her husband Tom, tries to make his way back into her life. Tom, not a very reliable character, is none too pleased with this, and the resulting evolutions of plot are a far cry from Ozzie and Harriet.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby'

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan
in “The Great Gatsby”
a Warner Bros. Pictures release
Copyright: ©2013 BAZMARK FILM III PTY LIMITED
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Baz Luhrmann became well known for his wonderful film Strictly Ballroom (1992), a whimsically playful depiction of the ballroom dance scene in Australia. It had a whole cast of crazy characters and a romantic thread that sweetened the nuttiness just enough. It was wacky and lively and plenty of fun.

After a series of gradually more grandiose effects, progressing from Romeo and Juliet (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio and a young Claire Danes, Moulin Rouge (2001) and a Broadway-ized opera, La Boheme (2002), we now have this super-affected rendition of a twentieth century American literary classic, very high on optics and considerably lower on self-reflection.

It would appear that Luhrmann was dazzled by concoctions of visual manipulation and less drawn to more conventional tasks like evocation of character. Inattention to the latter produces a generalized sense of removal of the actors from the realm of vivid rendition into a space in which they all seem to be contained and held back.

The major actors – Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan – all have excellent track records elsewhere. DiCaprio was chillingly effective in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained (2012), boiling despicably while maintaining the external restraint that straitjackets him in Gatsby. Carey Mulligan was an instant hit in An Education (2009) and an effective ensemble actor in Never Let Me Go (2010). In those films, she demonstrated a hypnotically playful charm which in Gatsby gets lost.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in 'The Great Gatsby'

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
in “The Great Gatsby”
a Warner Bros. Pictures release
Copyright:©2013 BAZMARK FILM III PTY LIMITED
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Here the work of these fine young actors congeals into an epoxied concoction that hardens over the narrative rather than expressing it. When there is such universal flatness, one can only look to a wanting script and misconstrued direction.

Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps India’s most revered Bollywood film idol, has been cast, inexplicably, as the Jewish gangster, Meyer Wolfsheim. Why? There is no obvious reason for this bizarre casting choice other than to keep pace with the other incongruous choices Luhrmann has made.

My sense is that Luhrmann’s previous successes with offbeat choices has steered him to this point. But he has now gone so far to the side of peculiarly amplified spectacle that he has little energy for character, and it radiates through the gawky performances that charleyhorse throughout.

Why this film is in 3D is hard to understand, except that Luhrmann wants to create a spectacle rather than a literary-psychological study. The 3D in the titles is pretty cool, but in the rest of it is bland.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby'

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
in “The Great Gatsby”
a Warner Bros. Pictures release
Copyright:©2013 BAZMARK FILM III PTY LIMITED
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Contemporary music is filtered in with period music to make a strange melodic brew. Though the scene is clearly set in the 1920s, that does not prevent Luhrmann’s musical libertinism from taking flight. Why the score includes rap is a mystery, other than that Luhrmann is a collagist and likes to throw all sorts of things into the mix. Perhaps he thinks it cool, rather than distracting, to blend signatures of different eras at will: Gatsby is set near New York City, rap emerged from cities like New York, why not connect the dots, despite the century of separation?

By all means go to this show if you want to see interesting camera work and visual effects. That seems to be Luhrmann’s strength and concern. It is more a video spectacle based on a famous novel rather than a dramatic interpretation of it.

Because of this film’s unique chemistry of stilted performances, strangely inappropriate directorial choices, and curious innovations in video technique, I wonder whether it might someday achieve cult status in the realm of idiosyncratic cinematic amalgamations: Plan 9 From Outer Space? The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Moulin Rouge?

– BADMan

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