28 May 2013
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann/2013)
Per his familiar dazzle-fuelled plot template Baz Luhrmann starts The Great Gatsby with an anachronistic whiz-bang — all rejigged Jay-Z jazz steps and twenties décor in an MTV Cribs style — but then lets it agreeably coast with only intermittent party-popper bursts of liveliness, before it eventually fizzles out, halting to its crestfallen finish. It’s 143 variable minutes that contain some pep and pockets of emotion, but is weighed down by a handful of taxing plot turns that only amount to part-time fun part of the time. It’s Luhrmann’s way. He again offers his signature plot trajectory, as with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia — though he missed out all the fun bits in that last one.
Gatsby’s front-loaded with a trio of stars: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (as Old Sport) and Tobey Maguire (as Old Sport). DiCaprio is suitable casting as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s young pretender. He brings a dash of his Howard Hughes twitchiness from The Aviator, a few love-blind blinks from Revolutionary Road and, at several points, the soaked-through shiver of his Shutter Island dupe. Mulligan occasionally puts the flap in flapper, but only when she’s not out-demuring herself in the demurest-of-them-all stakes. Maguire employs the smugly bemused expression he wore during his awkward Spider-Man 3 dance sequence for the duration — only slightly dulled by the fact that he appears unsure whether he’s playing Carraway as the gooseberry or not. I could have done with a hike in screen time for Isla Fisher’s Old Sport (think Betty Boop-meets-Lil-from-Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), but a 30% reduction of the clammy, cardboard characteristics of Joel Edgerton’s Old Sport.
The film works best when it focuses on what’s strictly happening in its more self-contained scenes than when it’s hastily careering through sequences in an attempt to cram in every snazzy edit and camera somersault this side of Man with a Movie Camera. The chaste date between Daisy and Jay in Carraway’s house, full-to-overflowing with pastel-perfect flowers and tinged with light farce, succeeded in being a singular moment of lively delight. And the juicy social awkwardness of the Plaza hotel scene adds some shimmery gristle to the latter part of the film. (This is where all the characters present — everyone, that is, apart from one female hanger-on who spends the entirety of the film either chaise longue-slouching in the background or teeing off in flashbacks — get hot under the collar and go ‘full Jeremy Kyle’ by revealing their petty flings and lifelong jealousies to one another in a hysterical display of verbal tennis.)
For all the new 3D visual eccentricity Luhrmann thrusts upon Fitz’s classic, it perhaps clings a bit too close to literary fidelity and succumbs to narrative fatigue after the early, headier highs. I did wonder if it could have been made in another, more daring or daft mode: a full-blown comedy (National Lampoon’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby!), a low-key silent/not-silent movie à la Tabu (2012) or even in a Todd Haynes’ Superstar style with everyone played by dolls toing and froing on intricately-fashioned mini sets — and still in 3D! Or, why not let’s have a different Fitzgerald story: the man wrote a stack of short gems (perhaps his best 43 stories were gathered in the 1989 collection The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald); each one has just as much glorious cinematic potential as Gatsby. David Fincher tried something different with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on Fitzgerald's novella, and showed an audacity more venturesome than Baz does here. But Gatsby 2013 is certainly slick and stylish, with editing akin to a speedy flick through a bumper edition of Vogue, and is immaculately designed to within an inch of its beautiful existence. But, like Gatsby himself, it’s all a bit soggy in the end.