Friday, 17 May 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Baz Luhrmann reimagines The Great Gatsby as a jazz age Moulin Rouge!

There are directors who make all sorts of films. Then there are directors who make the same film over and over again. In the first sort, we find a journeyman director for hire, a jack of all trades, or perhaps a storyteller who has mastered the form. In the second, either an “auteur” who is either fool or a genius.

Baz Luhrmann is the second sort of director, whose singular vision and inflexible, mannered approach to storytelling must be married to the right narrative. Luhrmann’s brash interpretation of Romeo + Juliet worked because the source material was indeed about a rash, hot-blooded teen infatuation in a violent and polarised society. Yet watching Moulin Rouge!, one feels the strain of Luhrmann’s technique: you had exposition, some physical comedy, followed by a declamatory character speech whose first line would segue into a pop song. After the first half hour, it gets obnoxious and repetitive. Then you start thinking, “Yes, yes. I get it. Are you going to do that for the rest of the film? Do you think we’d last the remaining 2 hours watching you pull the same trick?”

I’m convinced that F Scott Fitzgerald’s most ambiguous, ambivalent, and subtle novel can never be adapted into film. We know the jazz age was a raucous affair. Gazing from the outside, Jay Gatz imagines the parties hosted by his reinvented self, Gatsby, would be just as raucous. Yet the novel is marked by its interiority, with Nick Carraway’s coy and understated prose gazing from the shores of a distant future into an already-lost sepia-toned past. Carraway’s tone is elegiac, the unreliable narrator complicit in mythologising the past, Gatsby, mythologising Gatsby’s almost renaissance self-fashioning just as much as he mythologises his own ability – and Jordan Baker’s – to pass for straight in a world where, even as Tom Buchanan blunders about warning of the barbarians at the gate, the paradigm remains that of a rich, white, and hot-blooded male American.

The irony, the various clashing subtexts, the double tragedy of unreliable narrators (Gatsby of his own fate, Carraway of the tale) – none of it you shall find in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It’s about the loud, crazy parties and Baz Luhrmann’s psychedelic style. It’s the loud, unsubtle, occasionally hamfisted, ADD-addled cousin of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 turn at the windmill, both moving the Gatsby-Daisy plot into the foreground, both turning it into a straightforward romantic tragedy.

What makes this adaptation enjoyable in fact are the sequences that aren’t from The Great Gatsby. DiCaprio positively shines when he plays Gatsby as if he were a comic protagonist in a tragic opera. What bogs the film down is Luhrmann’s bombast, combined with the rest of the cast playing their roles entirely too straight.

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