Party like it's 1929

Party like it's 1929

Lifestyles of the rich and famous or hot mess?

By Tim Pompey 05/16/2013

The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Toby Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
2 hr. 23 min.

There’s something about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby that draws in filmmakers like bees to honey. A story of American greed and excess, bitter love and the impossible dream. A period piece that captures the universal human capacity for cruelty and self-delusion.

So why does this one story stubbornly refuse to adapt to film? Case in point: director Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Like other directors before him who have scaled this peak, Luhrmann, even with his considerable talent, still manages to climb only partway up the mountain.

Typical of Luhrmann, his Gatsby is raucous and opulent. Not quite on the same level with Moulin Rouge, but certainly in the same class. But staging parties is one thing, exploring people’s lives is something else entirely.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a recent arrival on West Egg, Long Island. A bond salesman on Wall Street who wants to be a writer, he is intrigued by his next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who throws lavish get-togethers and flaunts his golden lifestyle to his old-money neighbors.

Gatsby draws Nick into his life for a very important reason. He’s a cousin to the love of Gatsby’s life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). He’s the connection that Gatsby really wants, and he uses Nick to reforge his previous love affair with Daisy.

But as Nick learns, Gatsby is a man whose claims to power and fortune are muddled by his relationships to bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) and a back story that seems beset by all sorts of rumors and contradictions.

Nick discovers that the cool and well-dressed Gatsby is really a man consumed by his obsession with Daisy. And that obsession is the real clue to Gatsby’s existence. What will a man sacrifice to pursue his dream? And what if that dream remains eternally out of reach?

Director and screenwriter Luhrmann is a man whom Fitzgerald himself might welcome into his novel, a director prone to creating lavish film productions that reflect his own obsession with amassing not just stories, but gigantic movie monuments.

Not that there aren’t fascinating moments in this film. Incorporating a soundtrack that is broad and fresh, Gatsby is filled with frenetic energy and has the rhythmic style of an innovative music video.

Unfortunately, there are also extensive takes where Luhrmann seems more drawn to the staging than the actual heart of the story. And while it could be argued that this film has its own timing and focus, Luhrmann, enraptured as he is by his passion for dramatic theater, takes too long to reveal Gatsby’s soul. When he finally gets down to the real story, it feels as though he’s found the meat of his film too late.

You might wonder about some of the plot lines as well. Nick as an alcoholic in a sanatorium, Daisy as the naive victim of a careless society.

And then there are questions surrounding Gatsby himself. Supposedly cool and sophisticated, DiCaprio’s Gatsby often feels uptight and jittery, as if he’s deliberately trying to warn us that he’s hiding something. The real Gatsby would never be this obvious.

The genius of Gatsby and the key to its success as a novel was its straightforward approach, its simplicity and truthfulness. It’s hard to get that drift in this film version.

The irony here is that Luhrmann’s production of Gatsby — big, extravagant and messy — would fit well in Gatsby’s world. Perhaps Gatsby would smile as he watched himself in this version, smile because he would recognize what it’s like to return time and again to the same dream.

He would know what it’s like to believe that, by overreaching, you might just find that dream. I think Luhrmann could have benefited from becoming better acquainted with Gatsby, if he had just taken the time.


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