Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Frances (a.k.a. Scottie), celebrate Christmas 1925 in Paris

Australia  USA  (143 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Baz Luhrmann       Official site

No one makes movies of lavish extravagance like Baz Luhrmann, simply no one, which is one of the pleasures of seeing his films.  Perhaps the reincarnate of Ken Russell’s dizzyingly flamboyant films of the 60’s and 70’s, where it often felt like the mad passionate style had overtaken any cinematic value and content, as the director showed less and less restraint, nonetheless he was always an original.  In much the same way, Luhrmann can be counted on for dazzling visual imagery, which some find exaggeratedly overboard, simply too much, where Moulin Rouge (2001) remains the best creative expression of his unique style.  While many find Gatsby unfilmable, as so much of the novel is a description of observances and inner reflections, recounted in narrative form, which may have been best served by the noirish Black and White era of 1949, where bleak lives and a hard-boiled, yet descriptive narration offers a literary feel, where the dark overall mood of criminal intrigue trumps individual character.  That version accentuates the criminality of Gatsby’s underworld lifestyle, while also attractively featuring Shelly Winters as the wronged woman, an ill-fated femme fatale who throws herself in front of a fast-moving automobile with tragic results, all part of the spiraling downturn in Gatsby’s life.  There is a 1926 Silent version, but one wonders how such a contemporary literary classic would hold up in exaggerated looks and gestures alone, lacking much of the description and complexity of the book.  The 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy is simply too bland for most people’s tastes, never generating any heat, and never rising to the level of an American classic, while the made-for-TV 2000 version is already forgotten.  One might think an outsider’s view in the form of a brash and exuberant Australian director Baz Luhrmann might do the trick, where he’s not so beholden to the literary material and could openly express his free-wheeling style, as the period reflected is the Roaring Twenties, an era of American jazz and a cultural renaissance, including writers, dancers, and musicians in Harlem, where women in America, Canada, India, and Europe received the right to vote, new abstract modern artforms flourished, like Art Deco and Surrealism, but also the contemporary literary elite were heralded with laudatory reviews while living and treated like royalty in Paris, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the source novel for this film.  But alas, it was not to be, and while entertaining throughout, this is yet another version that fails to connect the intricate power of the work to the movie audience.

Part of the problem with this version is the casting, as Leonardo DiCaprio is out of his element as Gatsby.  Like Redford, another man with a pretty face, he fails to get underneath the mysterious man behind the mask, showing us nothing onscreen that he hasn’t already expressed before, using a really phony accent, as if trying to emulate the Boston inflection of the Kennedy’s, and the film even revives the tragedy of the Chappaquiddick incident, which forever derailed the Presidential ambitions of Ted Kennedy.  Carey Mulligan exudes the pixieish flirtatiousness of Daisy, whose artificiality defines her, along with her reliance upon overcontrolling men, too afraid to ever express her inner self, becoming a tragic lost soul in the process.  Unfortunately, Tobey Maguire as the narrator and writer Nick Carroway is well meaning, but too naïve and passive, not at all reflective of Fitzgerald’s own opulent lifestyle of extravagant wealth and lavish parties, where he and his wife Zelda were renowned New York celebrity socialites, making several excursions to Europe, mostly to Paris, where their faces were all over the magazines and newspapers.  Maguire is simpy too meek of a character to exhibit much insight into the world he is drawn into, kind of blending into the wall for most of the picture, not really affecting much of the action, even though he is the observant eyes and ears of the movie, along with a giant billboard with spectacles seen at the entryway to the road to New York from Long Island, emblematic of the eyes of God watching over all who pass by, becoming an unseen moral conscience.  Surprisingly, the performer who comes across the strongest is fellow Aussie Joel Edgarten in perhaps the most despicable role in the film, Daisy’s unfaithful, double-crossing husband Tom, a man of wealth and social prestige, who flaunts it whenever he can, openly speaking his mind, a man used to getting his way, kind of gruff and rough around the edges, a bit like Howard Duff, becoming domineering and callous to Daisy’s needs, ordering her about like one of the hired help, who are almost exclusively black.  Tom is an East Egg blue blood, a borderline racist who believes people belong in their place, and that includes wives and the would-be nouveau rich living across the bay in the West Egg of Long Island where Gatsby’s mansion sits, people who accumulate wealth by illicit means that he believes are without culture and sophistication. 

The actual story behind the story, unraveling the mystery of Gatsby, doesn’t become apparent until near the end, where prior to that he’s simply seen as an immensely wealthy man with some dubious underworld business connections, probably making his millions on bootleg liquor, much like Joseph Kennedy Sr, though that has always been speculation, as he also made his millions on stock market insider trading, which was not outlawed at the time, becoming one of the richest men in America.  Gatsby is seen as a man who opens his home nightly to hoardes of party revelers, providing them food, drink, and musical entertainment, while he rarely shows himself, preferring his reclusive status until Nick moves in to a tiny cottage next door, quickly becoming fast friends, especially when he discovers Daisy is his cousin.  You’d think these party sequences would be the film’s cinematic extravagance, interestingly pulsating with a hip hop soundtrack, but Luhrmann only shows what’s necessary, never extending the shots to give the viewer the full effect like he does in MOULIN ROUGE.  Instead he accentuates the rekindled secret love affair between Gatsby and the scandalously married Daisy, where the best part of the film is the sudden shift to romantic feelings of optimism and hope, where Gatsby, who otherwise feels much like a weird stalker, building it all for her hoping one day she would walk inside his doors, and finally their lives suddenly come together and resemble his dream.  It can all happen, but Daisy gets cold feet while at the same time Gatsby reveals a more desperately controlling nature, where it’s all so close that he can taste it, seen alone at night at the end of the pier reaching out towards the green light emanating from the end of her pier across the bay, a warning for boats in the dark.  Nick is there to see it all, when in one stiflingly hot summer afternoon, they decide to get everything out in the open, so Gatsby begins to push Daisy into uncomfortable territory, forcing her to commit when she’s not yet ready, manipulating her in much the same way as that cad of a husband, where one’s no better than the other.  While Fitzgerald’s own life story is about the corrosive effects of wealth and the emptiness of the decadent lifestyle, reflected in the waning egoism and dwindling male self-confidence, destroyed by the continuing effects of alcohol, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a stark reminder that “All that glitters is not gold,” which comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where in each, senseless tragedy awaits those that fail to heed that message.

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