There are many ways to describe Baz Lurhmann's directing style, but "restrained" sure as hell isn't one of them. From Strictly Ballroom to Australia, each of the Aussie auteur's films embrace emotional and cinematic excess in grand, borderline ridiculous ways. That makes him an unlikely, but also inspired choice to tackle an adaptation of a Great NovelTM like F. Scott's Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a text so revered that movie versions can become ossified by their own self-importance. That's what happened to the last Gatsby flick, the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow tour-de-boredom that was so respectful of Fitzgerald's text that it transformed his vibrant novel into a pretty, but inert soap opera.
Lurhmann is similarly enamored by the author's words (and how could you not be? 90 years since its initial publication, Gatsby remains a gorgeously written book) and can't resist weaving them into the film via voiceover narration. But the primary source of his visual inspiration stems less from the novel and more from the grand, gaudy era that the players in Fitzgerald's ultimately sad, sordid story inhabit: New York's Jazz Age, when the city was a playground for the rich and powerful, as well as the young and penniless who longed to be rich and powerful. In other words, the New York of the Roaring Twenties is not entirely unlike the present-day Big Apple, a connection that Luhrmann drives home by packing the soundtrack with present-day pop and hip-hop tunes written and performed by such artists as Ke$ha, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who also scores an executive producer credit on the film.
The use of contemporary music in a period setting also brings to mind Luhrmann's finest cinematic accomplishment so far, Moulin Rouge!, and the similarities between that story and this one don't end there. In fact, viewed in hindsight, Moulin Rouge! is practically an audition for Gatsby in the way it tells the story of the rise and fall of a decadent age through the eyes of an innocent wide-eyed naïf who is seduced by the non-stop party happening around him and then abandoned when it moves on. In place of Ewan McGregor's Christian, we have Tobey Maguire's Nick, who makes the pilgrimage from the Midwest to Manhattan with dreams of striking it rich on Wall Street. Leasing a humble abode in the up-and-coming burg of West Egg, where the nouveau riche reside across the bay from East Egg's snobby community of the entrenched wealthy, Nick makes a half-hearted effort to focus on his work. But how can he be expected to concentrate with the orgy of wine, women and song happening just next door, at the palatial mansion occupied by the mysterious Mr. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Initially just an observer to the frivolity, the young man is welcomed into the fold when he receives an invitation to his neighbor's next bacchanal and scores some face-time with the man himself. By the way, DiCaprio's entrance into the film is not entirely unlike Nicole Kidman's first appearance in Moulin Rouge!. He may not pop into the frame singing a breathy Marilyn Monroe number, but he has the same impact on Nick that Satine had on Christian. As grand as the surroundings are, as seen through Nick's eyes, Gatsby is even grander.
That scene is the first clue that Luhrmann understands that the real love story at the heart of Fitzgerald's novel is the one between Carraway and Gatsby or, to be more accurate, the ideal that Gatsby represents. It's not necessarily a physical attraction that draws the two together (although the notion that Nick's affection for his neighbor goes beyond friendship has been suggested before), but rather a recognition that they are, to a certain extent, past and present versions of the same man. Nick represents where Gatsby has come from (although the Carraway family was far better off than the clan of dirt farmers that Gatsby, née Gatz, grew up with), while Gatsby's charmed existence, along with his drive to grasp for things that are always just out of reach, embodies the possibilities Nick imagines for himself. But Gatsby has practical reasons for getting on Nick's good side as well, as the young man happens to be the cousin of East Egg socialite Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the girl he loved and lost five years ago to pig-headed jock Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, with a Richard Roxburgh-style mustache). With Carraway willingly playing the part of the go-between, the two lovers reconnect and rekindle their love affair, with predictably tragic results. Since you almost certainly read and wrote reports on Fitzgerald's book in high school English class, I don't have to recount all the gory details, but suffice it to say that Daisy's affection ceases the minute the romance stops being fun and starts getting real, while Gatsby learns the hard truth that sometimes the flashing green light you're reaching towards will slip through your fingers.
Just as Gatsby looms large in the novel, so too has DiCaprio dominated the ad campaign for Luhrmann's movie. And the actor is quite good in the role, his still-babyish face complimenting Gatsby's status as a kind of man-child -- not of the geeky Judd Apatow variety, but rather a grown-up still driven by childish dreams of status and wealth. Still, it's Maguire's Nick who dominates the movie in terms of screentime, as it should be. In a clunky framing device, we see a disillusioned Carraway furiously translating his experiences in New York into book form while drying out in a sanitarium and our first exposure to the movie's major settings -- Gatsby's house, sparkling, swinging Manhattan, the Valley of Ashes separating the 'burbs from the big city -- is always filtered through his gaze. Maguire's range as an actor has never extended particularly far, but he's ideal for this kind of role, the awkward dork who stumbles into a position of great power and great responsibility. (Who is Nick Carraway, but a more selfish version of a pre-spider bite Peter Parker?) And the actor's perpetual expression of saucer-eyed amazement befits the sights both he and we see. Working with his usual creative team (most notably his wife, Catherine Martin, who serves as production and costume designer), Luhrmann has constructed a comic-book version of '20s Manhattan, one that pops with color and spectacle. It's a hyper-real fantasy land filled with hopping speakeasies, lavish hotels and apartment buildings where the windows become television screens broadcasting the human drama within to the world. The director's brand of razzle-dazzle is more ostentatious than Fitzgerald's elegant prose, but it recreates the spirit of the '20s better than most contemporary films I've seen set during that period. (The 3D, I'm sorry to say, is mostly useless -- a toy that Luhrmann wanted to play with, but demonstrates little aptitude for.)
The inherent problem with dramatizing The Great Gatsby, though, is that the emotional and narrative weight of the story's second half shifts to Daisy and Gatsby, but Nick continues to serve as our eyes and ears. It's a fascinating device on the page, with Nick's perspective coloring our understanding of the lovers' interactions and several major events happening offstage and then being relayed to us via the narrator, who heard about them second-hand. Lurhmann can't really replicate that effect onscreen and thus Maguire fades into the background while Daisy and Gatsby move front and center, playing out a romance that -- even if you hadn't read the book -- is clearly doomed. Both actors play the material with the right amount of conviction, but there's no avoiding the fact that on its own terms their love story is, ultimately, fairly thin gruel involving characters who are metaphors rather than human beings. There's also a pettiness and smallness to them within the text that's missing from Luhrmann's operatic vision; he presents Gatsby's downfall as a genuine tragedy, whereas Fitzgerald never depicted it in such grandiose terms. Rather, the ultimate tragedy of the book is how inconsequential Gatsby's time on this earth actually was, despite all the possessions he acquired. But if the movie's ending doesn't really capture what makes Fitzgerald's Gatsby great, it is entirely in keeping with Luhrmann's particular brand of artistry. And in the end -- for better and for worse -- this is very much Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby, a movie that honors the source material, but stays truer to its own creator's vision. Disagree with that vision if you wish, but I for one appreciated that this is a genuine adaptation rather than an overly cautious book on film.
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