Friday, May 17, 2013

Towards the Green Light

The exquisite Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

The Great Gatsby (Australia/U.S., 2013) directed by Baz Luhrmann, 143 minutes 
The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published 1922)

The Great Gatsby has proven a formidable book to try and represent on film … and woe to those who have tried and failed as the critics' knives will be out forthwith. Announcements that Baz Luhrmann, considered a cinematic showman and, some might say, an impresario of excess, was to tackle the book met with both frenzied excitement and derision. If you loved Luhrmann's William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) you were optimistic and giddy in anticipation. If you hated those films (and Luhrmann haters are legion) you were dismayed at the idea of Luhrmann tackling one of the best loved American classics of all times.

I had a chance to see the film last weekend with three friends. We possessed varying levels of enthusiasm about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby - from wildly impassioned devotee (me) to largely indifferent long ago readers of the book. I re-read the book every summer and plan to do so again this summer while in NYC.

As I watched the credits roll I had mixed feelings … I felt that certain characters had been miscast.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), a talented and versatile actor, is, unfortunately, too old for the part. DiCaprio, now in his late 30s, is meant to represent a young man newly released from the army a mere four years before in 1918 (although there were mature soldiers in the war, Gatsby was not one of those). DiCaprio is too intense, too arrogant, too jaunty a persona, for the role. The accent DiCaprio uses is a mystery to me ... I'm not sure if it works as a obvious false construction of what he (Gatsby) believes is what an upper crust person would sound like or it is merely just wrong for the role.

Gatsby, despite his great wealth, is extremely vulnerable and insecure. The sudden amassing of his great wealth through illicit means demonstrates how desperately he wants to prove his worth to Daisy. And extremely naive. Money, that great American idol and symbol of success, is not enough to capture this golden girl. As Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, so brutally points out, Gatsby lacks the unattainable prestige of inherited wealth and status ("We were born different. It's in our blood"), symbolized, for Gatsby, by the green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock on which he is fixated as he languishes in his Long Island mansion.

Oheka Castle ... said to be an inspiration for Gatsby's mansion
Carey Mulligan, lovely and vulnerable as the southern belle Daisy, sometimes has an accent as fleeting and ephemeral as the beautiful vintage dresses she wears in the film. And there is very little chemistry between the two main characters. But Mulligan does display the precise amount of vulnerability and self-absorption that the character warrants.

Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) has that dumbstruck look that he carries from film to film and that doesn’t quite work here. However, the Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband the philandering polo player, is spot on – cruel, ignorant, almost feral, and totally terrifying especially in the final confrontation at the Plaza Hotel where the men almost come to blows over Daisy. Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, is a little too crude, a little too obvious – yes, she’s meant to be a “cheap floozie” but Myrtle has legitimate reasons for feeling trapped, feeling cheated by her life in the flat above the garage and her slovenly husband George Wilson (impressively, if briefly, portrayed by Jason Clarke); however, the script gives no sense of that disappointment. For this I blame the costume/ production designer Catherine Martin and the director.

Certainly the CGI enhanced scenes - of Gatsby’s home on the fictional West Egg, the Buchanans’ lavish estate in East Egg (inspired by the old money locale of Manhasset Neck on Long Island), the orgiastic parties at Gatsby’s mansion, aerial views of the island of Manhattan - are vivid, often beautiful, but sometimes the effects and scenes are overwrought, overwhelming, and clearly unconvincing. 

When Myrtle is struck by Gatsby's car (with Daisy driving) her body flies up into the air surrounded by shattered glass spurting like tiny stars and skims the heights of Dr. Eckleburg's spectacles on the fabled giant, omnipresent billboard - not once, but twice, in the film. 

I felt at times as if Luhrmann did not trust the source material and that he felt he had to heighten the comedy or drama of certain scenes ... no need to make the attendees at the little impromptu party at Myrtle and Tom's hideaway on 158th Street more ridiculous, or sad, than they already are. The characters are sad and seedy but the designer clothes them in ridiculously bright colours and strange clothing with clown like makeup for the women (Myrtle, her sister Catherine and a neighbour named Mrs. McKee) and absurd little physical quirks for the lone man (Mr. McKee, an aspiring, foppish photographer). Or take the organist Klipspringer's character, who is depicted as a sort of mad, bizarre looking musical genius rather than an intriguing secondary character who haunts Gatsby's mansion and parties. 

The filmed scenes of the parties are riotous and frenzied ... was every party goer compelled to behave like a frat boy at his first party with alcohol? The action is too frenetic, too forced. Every inch of the screen is crammed with undulating, squirming partyers. Again, Luhrmann doesn't trust us to understand the excesses of the age as depicted by Fitzgerald on the page.

Of course, despite the predominance of black musicians and singers on the soundtrack black Americans play virtually no role in the book except as a source of bemusement or suspicion (when Nick passes a trio of haughty blacks in an expensive car he is condescendingly amused at their supposed sense of superiority) or in Tom Buchanan’s tirade to Nick, Daisy and Jordan Baker, Nick's erstwhile love interest, about having to beat back the coloured hordes or face the demise of white civilization. 

But in the film, as if to atone for this deficit and Luhrmann's heavy reliance on the talent of black artists on the excellent soundtrack, the black characters are essentially very pretty, shiny ornaments in the background - the entertainers and dancers at Gatsby’s parties and at a speakeasy that Gatsby takes Nick to with the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim – dressed in sumptuous, revealing costumes or as smartly dressed but indistinctly defined musicians who dutifully entertain the masses of white revelers. This is accentuated by their perfect, flawless skin and fully toned bodies.

The most annoying new element in the script is Nick's commitment to a sanatorium after Gatsby's death (this is how the film starts). This permits the filmmaker to tell Gatsby's life story as Nick writes it down for his doctor. This is a vast deviation from Carraway's character - he is not a broken man but an immensely disillusioned one, who has seen too much and been sickened by what he has seen in the destruction of Gatsby's life. One advantage of this technique is it allows the filmmaker to print Fitzgerald's words on the screen as Carraway writes them ... this highlights the more beautiful passages of the book.

I missed the exclusion of small sections from the book that were omitted - Meyer Wolfsheim's pathetic refusal to come to Gatsby's funeral, Gatsby's barely literate father Mr. Gatz coming for his remains and revealing some sad memories of the young Gatsby's aspirations, and, Nick's confrontation with an unrepentant Tom Buchanan on the streets of NYC long after Gatsby is dead. And Luhrmann doesn't even dare touch on the blatant anti-Semitism in the book regarding the Wolfsheim character (loosely based on the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein). 

One thing that did remain with me was the music – a melange of hip hop and rap (Jay-Z, Kanye West), romantic moody melodies (Lana Del Rey, Beyonce, Sia, Gotye), and re-orchestrated classics (Brian Ferry). But they strike exactly the right mood despite the anachronistic nature of the 21stc. musical choices made by Luhrmann. You may listen to the soundtrack here ...

But I have to say, the film and its images have stayed with me ... it might be worth another look.  
Two of the best things in the film: Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

One of my very favorite books. Thanks for a good review!