Here's What I Think, Old Sport

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When I was in high school, I bought a copy of The Great Gatsby from Jackson Street Books in downtown Athens. I imagined that it was a collector's edition, but the truth is, it was merely a 1953 Scribner reprint missing the dust jacket. Nonetheless, it's held a place of honor on all my bookshelves since then, and the thick blue pages preceding the title page are scribbled with my favorite passages from the book and other Fitzgeraldisms.

Since the Baz Luhrmann adaptation of my beloved Gatsby was announced some 18 months ago, I have been cautiously optimistic about it. I've been making and breaking plans to see the film since it hit theaters May 4. I finally accomplished it last night. As a known Gatsby-phile, several people have asked what I think, After they read this, they may be sorry they asked.

If Tim Gunn had the opportunity to review the pre-final cut of the film, I like to think he would've put one finger over his lips, quirked one eyebrow delicately above his glasses and said, "Baz, I want you to edit thoughtfully." There's no doubt Luhrmann captures the bold, brazen color of the 1920s. His recreations of Jazz Era New York are nothing short of stunning. In a scene where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jordan Becker (Elizabeth  Debicki)  are jostled through a Times Square crowd, it's almost difficult to pay attention to their conversation given the impeccably rendered city scene. In other moments he gives way to his signature high-style tactics with fast-motion turns through rooms and swoops through skylines. Although I chose not to see it in 3D, I could discern in moments that his choices were based on giving the 3D version life and not on supporting the story in anyway. In those moments, I felt Luhrmann sitting next to me saying, "Hey, hey, hey - watch this part!" Yeah, yeah. I see what you did there, Baz. It made me want to punch you in throat. And incidentally, it made me a little queasy.

I try never to go into movie adapted from a book without reminding myself that something, some little detail at the very least, will be changed. But when The Great Gatsby opened on a snowy New England sanatorium, I was downright confused. It seems that Fitzgerald's subtler motivations for Carraway's retelling of the story didn't suit Hollywood, so they turned him into an alcoholic and installed him in therapy. Well, that's distressing. But it gave him a reason to write the book and give Luhrmann use of another really annoying maneuver of showing Carraway writing and putting the words on the screen. The first time this happened, I couldn't stop myself from an audible, "Oh! I don't like that." I was disappointed to see the failed relationship between Nick and Jordan stripped from this adaptation as well; I thought Luhrmann underutilized Debicki who put in a cool, controlled and aloof performance as Jordan.

Since the teaser trailer debuted with "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West thumping in the background, much has been made about the soundtrack, which features a lot of non-Jazz Era music compiled by Jay-Z. Much like Luhrmann's sweeping landscape shots, when it works, it buoys the film; and when it fails, it's a miserable distraction. Jack White wailing "Love is Blindness" in the climactic scene was raw and desperate, and Lana Del Ray's "Young and Beautiful" is woven dreamily into the post-party scene and hauntingly spanned interaction between Gatsby and Daisy. On the other hand, a jazzy cover of "Crazy in Love"and's "Bang Bang" belonged nowhere in this film. This is probably how Shakespeare fans felt when The Cardigans' "Lovefool" bounced through Romeo + Juliet.

But lest you think I'm all down on this latest Gatsby adaptation (for the record, the fifth to date if you count A&E's tragic made-for-TV effort), this one is by far my favorite. Leonardo DiCaprio puts forth a dynamic performance, capturing both Gatsby's disarming charm and his nervous vulnerability. His confidence is convincing, and yet, you can sense that he's constructed a very delicate house of cards that threatens to tumble at any given moment. Even in moments when he's portraying the immense persona of Gatsby, he's carrying that threat just below the surface. Likewise, Carey Mulligan imbued Daisy with both charm and fragility without sinking into the insipid. She managed to emanate light and vivacity without being cloying, drawing both Gatsby and the audience to her every word and gesture. And an in an unexpectedly solid performance, Jason Clarke delivered a pitiable, brutal George Wilson. On the contrary, Isla Fisher's Myrtle is a one-dimensional woman on the side.

Though Luhrmann's styling sometimes pushes the characters into caricatures, he does capture the charisma and the chemistry while lacing it with the tenuous atmosphere of a grinding, sweaty, disruptive world on the precipice of disaster. Even though Fitzgerald couldn't have known what was coming, Luhrmann tinges this Gatsby with the unsustainable, voracious appetite of the 1920s that led into The Great Depression. His rendering of some of the key elements of the novel - Owl Eyes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the Valley of Ashes - were spot on. Plus, the contributions of Luhrmann's costume designer wife Catherine Martin cannot be understated in their impact on the film's visual interest.

Perhaps a fully realized screen adaption is as impossible as a happy ending in West Egg. Perhaps we who love Gatsby so deeply for his hope and his hopelessness have fallen into his ways. We look to the silver screen like he looked at the green light for the reflection of what we felt when we first met him in possession of "one of those rare smiles with a quality of reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in your life." And maybe Baz Luhrmann is guilty of producing a film of Gatsby-esque proportions, attempting to bring Gatsby to life with so much intensity that his production values were as overstuffed as Nick's parlor with hothouse flowers.

In the end, I loved and hated it, much as one loves and hates the whole lot of careless characters. I stand by the old "the book is better" philosophy, but there was a lot this film brought to life that has me wanting to pour some champagne and party with it all over again. After all, who wouldn't want to go to one of Gatsby's epic parties?


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