Monday, May 27, 2013

Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

The maximalism of Baz Luhrmann can easily put you off. He doesn't so much adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as he hits you over the head with the book. Thank goodness that it is not that big a novel, otherwise he'd knock us right out completely. In his hands this morality play of the Jazz Age leaves us breathless at times, as if he didn't trust that the source material can yield a worthy adaptation without including everything including the proverbial kitchen sink. The result is a very long, overblown film where the very personal story of three little rich people and one confused narrator oftentimes gets lost in the excessive glitz of a world that outdoes any of the scenes of debaucheries of Scott and Zelda, or the novel itself.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby with a smattering of a fading English accent that betrays his past. His accent sounds as mysterious as the man that he portrays. In his Long Island mansion, a Xanadu castle fit for three kings, he throws lavish weekend parties where the cream of society is entertained by anachronistic musical acts that may be grounded in the Charleston, but that ultimately turn into a modern hip-hop rave. Nobody is invited to these affairs, people just attend. All except his next door neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who receives a personal invitation, and who in the middle of the frenzy gets to meet the secretive host. They immediately strike a friendship that becomes the crux of this classic story. Of course, right across the bay from the Gatsby estate we have Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who was Nick's classmate at Yale. These are the other members of this amorous rectangle, doomed to end in tragedy.

The director comes up with an entertaining film, but certainly not the definitive adaptation of this novel, a literary work that because of its internal narrative, and subtle plot might not be adaptable to the film medium, and if it is, certainly not by such a Cecil B. DeMille-style talent like Mr. Luhrmann. There is a silent film adaptation that is now lost, made just a few short years after the novel was published. Perhaps that film, released at the height of the Jazz Age, got it right.

What Mr. Luhrmann does get right is the visual look of the film. It is a stunningly beautiful creation. Photographed by Simon Duggan, the film has a great Technicolor warm look that easily puts you into the period. Likewise, the scenic design by Catherine Martin makes her Art Deco sets come to life. Come award time, I am sure that the visual production aspect of this film will be remembered. So far this year, it is the most visually impressive film I have seen.

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