Fair to middling
What’s more obnoxious and overbearing than a Baz Luhrmann movie? A Baz Luhrmann movie in 3-D. When Warner Bros. announced that the release of Luhrmann’s movie of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel was being postponed from August 2012 to now, I wrote my colleague, fellow SN&R film critic Jonathan Kiefer, “You know what that means: It stinks, and everybody at Warner Bros. knows it.” Well, now the movie’s here, and it doesn’t stink. But it doesn’t smell too sweet, either. It’s easy to wonder if the release was postponed eight months so Warners’ research department could have time to make sure Fitzgerald was good and dead.
This is the fourth screen adaptation of Gatsby. The only one during Fitzgerald’s lifetime was a 1926 silent; it’s presumed lost, but reviews suggest it was fairly faithful, coming when the Jazz Age was at its hottest and “flaming youth” movies were the rage. Then came a 1949 remake with Alan Ladd, which, aside from Ladd himself, was insanely miscast from top to bottom and sanitized to conform to the Motion Picture Production Code. Most notoriously, 1974 saw a heavily hyped version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow that laid a thoroughly fossilized egg at the box office.
Now comes the Australian Luhrmann with his (and co-writer Craig Pearce’s) take on Fitzgerald’s melancholy tale of the mysteriously debonair Jay Gatsby and his wistful obsession with his former (and, he hopes, future) lover, the winsome Daisy Buchanan.
Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann, he’s not hampered by the genteel reticence that left director Jack Clayton’s Redford-Farrow version stone dead. Luhrmann does nothing halfway. If Fitzgerald describes Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) driving from Long Island into New York City, Luhrmann stages the drive like three laps of the Daytona 500. Where the novel had them taking lunch at a discreet midtown restaurant, Luhrmann shoots it in a teeming speakeasy with a raucous Cotton Club floor show. Luhrmann never cuts or dissolves from one borough of New York to another when he can swoop through the sky like a drunken seagull, buzzing every building and half the pedestrians from point A to point B. As for Gatsby’s wild weekend parties, Luhrmann shoots each one like a simultaneous replay of all 47 Super Bowl halftime shows, plus all the tailgate parties in the parking lots. Each party, though set in 1922, comes with a mashed-up soundtrack of musical anachronisms—Motown, disco, hip-hop—as if Luhrmann can’t imagine what people did for fun before 1969.
Luhrmann never understates when shouting will do. Even his introduction of the title character—with the simple statement, “I’m Gatsby”—is accompanied by a last-days-of-Pompeii blast of fireworks and roaring fanfare from Rhapsody in Blue loud enough to blow George Gershwin right out of his grave.
And yet, against all odds, splinters of Fitzgerald’s meticulous, diffident prose somehow keep floating to the surface of the vulgar CGI varnish slathered over every frame of the movie. This is Baz Luhrmann’s fifth feature in 20 years (after Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia), and in most of them he’s made a style of getting bad performances from good actors. With Gatsby, either he’s changing his ways or these actors were just too good for him. They all seem to have read the book, which is more than you can say for the 1949 or 1974 versions.
As Gatsby, if anybody notices, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances, catching the paradoxical blend of worldliness and naiveté at the heart of Fitzgerald’s antihero. Carey Mulligan, luscious as a lemon drop, embodies Daisy’s dangerous brand of selfish allure. Tobey Maguire was born to play Nick Carraway, though Luhrmann oddly has Nick narrate the story to a psychiatrist in a sanitarium (Jack Thompson), as if he were permanently unhinged by the events rather than merely sadder but wiser. Joel Edgerton has the brute energy of Daisy’s loutish husband Tom. And as the lithe, terminally sexy Jordan Baker, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is a real discovery, one to keep an eye on.
Call it The Not-Half-Bad Gatsby. Or rather, it is half-bad, but the not-bad half turned out better than expected.