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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Great Gatsby the film

Or: Bright Lights, Big Story (but where are our characters?

When going to a Baz Luhrmann film it is important to remember that, before anything else, it will be a Baz Luhrmann film. If you expect it to be something other than Luhrmanny (Gorgeous to watch, Disconcerting to Listen to, maybe a little rough around the script, filled with epic love and epic betrayal and pungent metaphors) then you will be disappointed and not be able to appreciate any good qulities.

The film is indeed undeniably gorgeous to look at. Colors, both soft and riotous, fling themselves around the screen in a dazzling display of robes, suits interior, decorations and natural splendor. Even the Valley of Ashes and the infamous eyes of Dr. J.T. Eckelsburg have a kind of stained and muddy glory to them. The written quotations from Fitzgerald's text that occasionally float on screen, while lacking in definite purpose, are all presented in suitably tasteful and sometimes extremely fitting fashions. And the actors themselves glow like superbly crafted, innerly illuminated automatons: Daisy could be carved of pure alabaster, Myrtle from finely shaped wax, Wolfsheim from polished teak. Luhrman could not have done any better, or worse depending on your opinion, if he had rendered his entire cast from CGI. He also does both a poignantly beautiful and utterly monotonous job with Fitzgerald’s famous Green Light, and carries the job out with such relish, that I inwardly asked, “Mr. Luhrmann, kindly extend both your hand and neck, that I may wring both with equal fervor.”

He’s tampered a bit with the script too. Unlike the book, which dives straight into Nick Carraway’s (Maguire) unforgettable summer in roaring New York, we begin with our young narrator locked up in a sanitarium. He has been halted in the process of drinking himself to death and has developed a disgust of everyone and everything. His kindly doctor, in hopes of bringing the boy back to the land of the living suggests he write about the only thing that brings him comfort, memories of his extraordinary friend J. Gatsby (DiCaprio). Too often we spring back to Nick in the sanitarium, not necessarily looking any better, which diverts us from his interactions with the mysterious Gatsby, the masses of libertines who attend his parties (the Gatsby House looks like the Disneyland Castle transformed into a club and/or bordello) as well as Nick’s cousins the elegant and fragile Daisy (Mulligan) and her brutish, adulterous husband Tom (Edgerton). Sadly Jordan Baker (Debicki), Nick’s “interest”-interest is given even less of a personality than she has in the book, and spends most the novel looking Beautiful and Board with a bit of Fearful thrown in every half-hour for variety’s sake. Also, the saga of George and Myrtle Wilson (Clark and Fischer) one of Fitzgerald’s Master strokes in the book, has been largely consumed by character development for Tom, and they become almost comic characters as they patter about speaking “Queens” english.

The major fault of the film is that it moves too fast. Much of Nicks written revery has necessarily cut or repurposed into dialog, and with it goes all the mystery that Nick and his readers try to puzzle out. Every metaphor or undercurrnet is spelled out, clear as a martini glass, and just about as exciting. I predict that Middle Schoolers for years to come, will lift the films textual discoveries and add them straight to their English Papers. And the frames! Ye Gods! There is no pause, not so much as a chance to catch ones breath (and don’t get me started on the hyperventilating once Gatsby and Daisy get together, oy vey). The camera is infused by the era’s restlessness, only settling down to a truly “watchable” speed in the films last half hour when, even if you know the book, the ending is a foregone conclusion and our desire is not to find out what comes next, but how that narrowing gap of time twixt now and then will be spent.

It is also in that last half-hour that Gatsby finally lets us see some depth in his character. I am perhaps a little biased against DiCaprio, never having seen the point of him, and disappeared at his matinee idol rendition of the “Gatsby Smile” which is described in such loving detail. Ironically it is only when his world starts to crumble around him that Dicaprio shows us Gatsby’s “remarkable capacity to hope”. He paints us a picture of the deep struggles hidden behind the cage of well built manners, attempting to mesh his dream to his reality. Sadly, Mulligan, though she fully captures Daisies unthinking selfishness and vulnerability, either cloisters her actions and expressions or plunges them deep into the Fountain of Ham. I would congratulate Edgerton on playing an excellently pitched Drunk, if it didn’t appear that he was drunk in every scene he appears in (he also improves in the last half hour, in depth if not goodness). As for Maguire, he’s entertaining enough, handles his both his comedic and investigatory parts well, but again we see very little change over time. Where is his hope, his esteem, his disgust? You have that whole framing device lad, use it! But perhaps the greatest shame is the loss of Bachchan, a major star of the Hindi Film Industry who has been both winning hearts and making nightmares since the early seventies. His Meyer Wolfsheim is relegated by Lurhmann to a scene and quarter, and all we get is a taste of Jovial but Dangerous Foreigner, before the lid is shut on that dish, and the actors depth of commitment (he excels at both Jovial and Dangerous) is sent back to the kitchen.

In spite of my qualms I did enjoy the Great Gatsby, and while I regretted the loss of Mystery (and Bachchan, what a waste of talent was there) I thought that for a Baz Luhrmann film it was well done. Best to sit back and let the pretty pictures wash over you, just remember to sit up and take notice in the final half-hour when Gatsby comes to life.

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