Thursday, May 9, 2013

A 'Gatsby' full of razzle dazzle

Baz Luhrmann goes way over the top to tell a classic American story.

Director Baz Luhrmann has accomplished something close to extraordinary in his vivid, dizzying and ultimately misguided version of The Great Gatsby. He has taken F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic 1925 novel -- a classic of American literature -- and turned into as glossy and colorful an extravaganza as might have been seen in the days when big-screen spectacles were drenched in three-strip Technicolor.

Put another way: Luhrmann's Gatsby has the glamour-laden production values of a musical -- only one in which somebody forgot to write the songs.

Luhrmann, who already has proven himself a maestro of overstatement in works such as Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet, has added 3-D to this version of Gatsby, presumably to give the movie a sense of immersive depth. The 3-D images might be the only depth you'll find in this showy, anachronistic and occasionally cartoonish version of the Gatsby story.

In Luhrmann's hands The Great Gatsby has become a frenzied display of technique, much of it devoted to creating the bacchanalian delirium that turned Gatsby's fabled parties into a magnet for New York's high-living crowd. Are we talking Gatsby or outtakes from the Playboy Mansion? You be the judge.

Fitzgerald, of course, told the story through a narrator named Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who travels to New York and rents a small cottage next to Gatsby's ostentatious Long Island mansion. Nick meets Gatsby because of Gatsby's long-standing and unquenchable love for a woman named Daisy, who happens to be Nick's cousin. Nick is supposed to serve as a go-between for Gatsby and Daisy.

When we meet Daisy, she's already married to Tom Buchanan, Yale graduate and certifiable lout who indulges his libido with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), a low-class mistress from Queens.

Luhrmann uses some of Nick's narration (i.e., Fitzgerald's prose), even allowing pieces of it to wander across the screen in the form of typescript that floats above the fray.

But fidelity to text is hardly the point here: Luhrmann hasn't recreated America of the 1920s. He has invented a dreamscape all his own; the movie -- which mixes rap and Gershwin on its sound track -- isn't so much an evocation of the past, but a visit to an alternate universe stocked with jiggling flappers, feverish jazz musicians and a Jewish gangster played by an Indian actor (Amitabh Bachchan) who seems to have wandered into the story from some multi-cultural universe of the 21st century.

Luhrmann's Gatsby is a bold, vividly realized and distressingly literal retelling of a story that has been put on film before, but never with so much loudly trumpeted artifice and self-conscious daring; the soundtrack arrives complete with musical contributions from Jay Z and Beyonce.

Of course, Luhrmann has made alterations to the story (Nick tells the tale from some sort of rehab facility where he's struggling with alcoholism and regret), but changes to Fitzgerald's story are the least of the problems. Most of those center around the fact that Luhrmann has taken the events of the novel -- always secondary to Fitzgerald's prose -- and added so much technologically created upholstery that everything collapses into it.

Only those who do not own television sets can have escaped prior knowledge that Leonard DiCaprio portrays Jay Gatsby, the hopeful and deluded man who spends a lifetime trying to recreate his past so that he can become a suitable suitor for Daisy, a member of the upper classes to which the low-born Jay longingly aspires.

Looking as if he's posing for a fashion ad in the Sunday New York Times magazine, DiCaprio projects the calm of a man who's willing to create a storm to attract the beautiful Daisy who lives across the bay from him. And, yes, Gatsby spends an inordinate amount of time staring across the dark waters of Long Island Sound at the luminous green light that glows on dock of the Buchanans' East Egg home. The symbolism is inescapable: The light represents everything that remains visible but out of reach for Gatsby.

Gatsby is one of those amorphous figures who tries to create a new version of himself, but only can achieve it by associating with and profiting from the corruption and crime that leads to quick wealth. He has obscene amounts of money, but his affluence never can equal the more seasoned wealth that people such as the Buchanans have come by as a birth right.

Daisy is played by Carey Mulligan, who seems entirely too grounded for the part of a dreamy fantasy girl. A scowling Joel Edgerton portrays her husband Tom, polo player and former Ivy League jock, a man with a smash-mouth personality. In Luhrmann's hands, these pivotal characters seldom seem like plausible people; they move through the movie carrying the weight of the literary archetypes that they seem to represent.

As for Nick, the narrator ... well ... let's just say that Tobey Maguire rises to the challenge of making him as uninteresting as most narrators are, the man who floats outside the story, fascinated by it but unattached to its core.

Of all the characters, only Daisy's friend Jordan Baker -- played by Elizabeth Debicki -- seems to fit into a recognizable universe.

By now, I'm sure you've caught my drift; Luhrmann's movie is more about production design than about the distorting powers of the American dream. Its rewards have more to do with vintage cars, sprinting camera movements and glitzy overstatement than with the tragic undertow of Fitzgerald's story.

A confession of sorts: I watched The Great Gatsby with a sense of sustained amazement at Luhrmann's capacity for emotional amplification, but presenting an entire movie in an over-the-top style doesn't leave much by way of wriggle room.

I suppose sales of Fitzgerald's much-purchased novel will enjoy an inevitable boomlet because of Luhrmann's movie, but I'd be willing to bet that this Gatsby has more influence on American fashion than on the country's intellectual, emotional or cultural life.

In that sense, Luhrmann may have found the key to bringing Fitzgerald's film-resistant novel to the screen. Luhrmann may not get at much that feels real or substantial, but his Gatsby sure as hell is dressed for success.

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