Monday, May 27, 2013

Film Review: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

I can honestly say that I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as much as I enjoyed Fitzgerald's original novel.  I suppose now would be as good a time as any to let it be known that I really am not much of a fan of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.  Granted, the 1922 classic novel is better than 99% of what passes as literature these days, and therefore could be considered a comparative masterpiece, but I just never got what all the hoopla was about.  Yes, it is a moderately entertaining work of fiction - good, but by no means as great as everyone seems to believe it to be - and I suppose belongs in the literary canon, but really, it is not all that people.  And to top things off, the one thing I most liked about the book is something that Luhrmann's adaptation rips to shreds, but more on that in a bit.  Let us first discuss the enigma that is a Baz Luhrmann picture.

Easily described as "not for everyone," the strange and unusual oeuvre that is that of Baz Luhrmann's, is most definitely an acquired taste - and a taste that not everyone will acquire, or even wants to acquire.  Starting his directorial career in 1992, with the bizarro rom-com, Strictly Ballroom, the Aussie auteur followed this up with what this critic considers the best damn adaptation of Romeo and Juliet yet put on film.   Modernizing the style, music and clothes, but keeping Shakespeare's words, Luhrmann's fast-paced, ultra-hip (probably too hip for many purists, as well as many of the more jaded critical set) cinematic spectacle was a big hit (Luhrmann took home Best Director at the Baftas) and gave the public the biggest taste of the director's style yet.  Then came Moulin Rouge in 2001, and Luhrmann took his unique style and exploded it upon the screen.  Moulin Rouge was, and still is, the director's most successful film (nominated for eight Academy Awards, and taking home two Oscars, for, no surprise, Art Direction and Costume Design), and is the best (or wost, depending on your opinion of Mr. Luhrmann and his directorial bent) example of the auteur's distinctive style, and what best makes the man as loved or as hated as he is.

Cut to twelve years later, and kind of tip-toeing past the mildly enjoyable but not greatly enjoyable 2008 film, Australia (the director's one film that seemed to have brought both Luhrmann-lovers and haters together in a common disdain), and here is Luhrmann taking on one of the most beloved books in American literary history (yeah, yeah, we already went over my thoughts on that).  Toning down his usual style (there is not near as much oomph as Moulin Rouge had), we still get what makes Luhrmann so visually transfixing, but we get it inside a film that just isn't all that interesting.  To quote a fellow critical compatriot, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, said of the film, "When it's entertaining it's not Gatsby, and when it's Gatsby it's not entertaining."   Visually stunning at times, the film just falls flat in everything outside of this stunningness.  Let's face facts, Leo DiCaprio, a capable actor at best, is miscast as Jay Gatsby, while Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway, is as plainly vanilla as he always is, and Carey Mulligan, easily the most talented of the bunch, is just not right for the part of Daisy Buchanan.  Joel Edgerton is the only one with the right stuff to pull of his performance as Tom, Daisy's philandering hubby.   But it is Mulligan's portrayal of the iconic Daisy, or more appropriately, Luhrmann's narrative rendition of Daisy, that brings us to the part that I am most disturbed with.  

In Fitzgerald's novel, Daisy is a shallow party girl who wants nothing more than to have fun, ultimately at the tragic expense of those who are misguided enough to believe her love for them is real.  In Luhrmann's movie, since the director is so gung-ho about tragic romance,we get a Daisy who does seem to love and have deeper feelings, and when we get to the end, and are left with Maguire speaking Fitzgerald's words on how "Tom and Daisy are capable only of cruelty and destruction; they are kept safe from the consequences of their actions by their fortress of wealth and privilege," a passage that is probably the crux of Fitzgerald's indictment on the societal woes of his time, ends up not making any sense whatsoever in the context of Luhrmann's film.  Yeah, yeah, sure, it's fun to look at and all, but even the tepid waters of Fitzgerald's overrated classic, seem teaming with sharks when compared to Luhrmann's effort here.  The director's unique style could make him something akin to the Busby Berkeley of his day, if only he would stick to the musical genre (a remake of The Golddiggers of 1933 maybe?) and leave things like this (overrated yes, but still with some deeper meanings and ideas) to others.  "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  This final line of the novel, spoken here by the aforementioned Mr. Vanilla, is something Luhrmann takes, and flies with - only he has no idea what it even means.

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