J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Luhrmann “Punches Up” Fitzgerald


This is not the Long Island of Ed Burns movies.  As everyone should remember from high school English class, East Egg is where the old money elite are ensconced and West Egg is where the nouveau riche frolic the nights away.  They are so close yet so far away.  This is still the case in Baz Luhrmann’s brassy 3D adaptation of Fitzgerald’s moody classic, The Great Gatsby (trailer here), which opens across the country today.

Mystery man Jay Gatsby throws extravagant parties in his West Egg mansion in hopes his old flame will someday wander in.  Daisy Buchanan now lives with her husband Tom, an old moneyed philandering bully.  Gatsby hopes her nebbish cousin Nick Carraway, living in the hobbit cottage next to his estate will help him woo her back.  A lot of drinking ensues as the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s faded billboard look down on man’s folly.  At least it’s a heck of a party.

Let’s be frank, Luhrmann is a West Egg filmmaker if ever there was one.  Once again he empties his kit bag of ostentatious razzle dazzle, anachronistic music, and a singular fusion of pop culture irony with syrupy melodrama.  To his estimable credit, Luhrmann never tries to crank up the novel’s modern “relevancy.”  Gatsby and his gangster associate Meyer Wolfshiem are not reconceived as sub-prime lenders, nor do any characters’ untimely deaths coincide with the 1929 stock market crash. 

Instead, Luhrmann is the sort of director who might step on the set and proclaim: “you know what this scene needs? More dancing flappers.”  To an extent, we should all be able to buy into that.  You can dismiss Luhrmann’s style as shtick, because it is, but it is his shtick.  However, on some level, he still has to hold together a narrative and guide his cast.  The latter is rather problematic, starting at the top.

Aside from his gloriously over the top entrance, set to the crescendo of Rhapsody in Blue, Leonardo DiCaprio is profoundly wrong as Gatsby.  This is the great Byronic brooder of proper upstanding American literature, but you would hardly know it here.  Chipper and shallow, DiCaprio’s Gatsby is like the Gatsby Gatsby always wanted to be.  This is rather disastrous given Luhrmann’s surprising faithfulness to Fitzgerald’s storyline.

Perhaps even more head-scratching is the choice of Carey Mulligan to play Daisy Buchanan, especially considering her eerie resemblance to DiCaprio.  Is Luhrmann offering a subversive commentary on the characters’ narcissism when they stare into their beloved’s eyes and see themselves reflected back?  Or is it just a case of careless casting?  Regardless, it is quite creepy to watch them rekindling their romance.  Far from a femme fatale, her Buchanan is just plain mousy.

On the other hand, poor Tobey Maguire has been taking it in the shins from critics, but his “gee whiz” persona is perfectly suited to Nick Carraway.  Likewise, many were thrown for a loop by the announcement the great Hindi actor Amitabh Bachchan would play Wolfshiem, but that voice could sell anything.  Next time, let’s make him Gatsby.

Who would have been better suited for the title role?  Seriously, how about Robert Downey, Jr.?  Take into account the similarities between Tony Stark and Jay Gatsby.  Both are conspicuous consumers and relentless re-inventers.   They have rather ambiguous wartime experiences and are smitten with ghostly pale blondes.  Of course, we can instantly believe Downey has been to some very dark places.  DiCaprio, not so much.

For his next project, Luhrmann ought to do a legitimate Busby Berkeley musical.  His big sprawling musical bacchanals really are a lot of fun to behold.  Unfortunately, the rest of the film is sabotaged by the inappropriate leads and a complete abandonment of the novel’s dreamy ambiguity.  Big and loud, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is what you would expect, never transcending the Moulin Rouge! template. For those who want to see Fitzgerald this way, it is now playing pretty much everywhere with a movie screen, including the Regal Union Square in New York.

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