Baz Luhrmann’s distinctive razzmatazz on a celebrated American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby starts fast with giving us New York of the Roaring Twenties. The sped up camera virtuosity captures the drunken highs and elations of aristocratic partygoers; in that sense, it’s a virtuoso humdinger like “Casino” (1995). Then it slows down in the second half so the ilk of the novel’s plot can be duly translated to screen. Baz and co-writer Craig Pearce must have been soused though when writing the dialogue. Here I was, fascinated by the acid-trip images of a historic period New York but hardly gripped by the dialogue. Despite myself, the simplest actions of the plot engaged me even if they were already known to me. Anyway, I get a little romantic and sloshy over certain scenes in Baz’s “Moulin Rouge!” so it can’t be wrong if I say I felt the same (guilty pleasure) with “Gatsby.”
Let’s not mistake the source it came from though. “Gatsby” is one of the most celebrated novels because of its great prose (Fitzgerald’s prose is heard only during Tobey Maguire’s voice-over narration as Nick Carraway). Voice-over passages are even printed on the screen, albeit, Jay-Z rap songs boom the soundtrack. Is Eminem going to supply the soundtrack for a “Tale of Two Cities” adaptation? Faithful to tone and spirit, Baz might claim, but he would be wrong.
Still, Baz’s glossy overhyped melodrama is preferable to the stodgy 1974 “Gatsby” with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. You don’t know how good you have it with Baz until you’ve seen that snoozer. When Baz is putting on a hyper-theatric orgy (dancers, drinkers, pleasuremongers) I confessed to being visually aroused. Baz has overloaded me before, but on this occasion, his moving pop storybook has a merry kinetic flow.
The actors play it like 1927 (sort of), with a post-modern wink. Leonardo DiCaprio was once hit-and-miss with me, but he’s been stupendous in the last several years in role after role. Again, he’s just right as the tormented tycoon who throws lavish parties he rarely attends at his dream mansion. And Carey Mulligan is equally just right as the vulnerable glamourpuss Daisy Buchanan, the dream girl that slipped away five years prior. Good principles fill the screen, but they are missing the book’s irony and plastic-snob façade that embalmed Fitzgerald’s characters, in case you needed to be reminded.
There are nevertheless wonderful actor moments. DiCaprio has a fantastic entrance, Orson Welles-like. Two more wonderful scenes with DiCaprio have him awaiting company amidst a drawing room filled with flowers (Has Baz conjured up a homage of “The Age of Innocence”, especially with its windblown curtains in drawing rooms?) and another shot of him tossing silks and clothing from a balcony onto his silken bed where his would-be lover rests. DiCaprio has smoldering zeal as Gatsby.
The right amount of blind ambition embodies DiCaprio’s take on Gatsby to convince us he is ready to steal Daisy directly in front of her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, who borrows the essence of Clark Gable to play the saturnine polo player). But I never believed the coincidental car wreck that changes the circumstances for its players in the book, nor do I easily accept it here. That part is forced melodrama, and no adaptation has changed my feelings.
But are we not entertained?
The final lines of the book are recited and printed on screen: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Baz spits out this passage fast, as if afraid to lose us. But it’s nice that it’s in there.
Post-note: 3D glasses are wasteful and superfluous since very little 3D wow is in the slightest generated.
143 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
DRAMA / SEXY IMAGES / WEEKEND VIEWING DEBAUCHERY
Film Cousins: “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929, Russia); “The Great Gatsby” (1974); “The Age of Innocence” (1993); “Moulin Rouge!” (2001).