Wednesday, March 5, 2014
I expected to dislike Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby. Instead, I pretty much dug it. It's not the novel, but movies never are, and Luhrmann's departures from the text, while sometimes a bit iffy (the frame story exudes wonkiness at times), work for the most part in interesting ways. It's certainly the first adaptation that gets the Jazz Age frothiness and buzz of the early 'Party' sections pretty much right before the narrative plunges into darkness. Or drives into it at unsafe speeds.
Luhrmann adds a certain amount of Hollywood sentimentality to the mixture, which is probably inevitable for any film adaptation not done by Stanley Kubrick or Peter Brook. Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby comes off as much more sympathetic than the character in the book, despite the film's assignation of an extra dose of criminal behaviour to Gatsby. Tobey Maguire is really a perfect actor to play an observer like Nick Carraway, and the film increases that passivity by removing most of his interaction with Jordan Baker. Nick's repressed homosexuality, strongly implied in the novel, is nowhere to be found.
The reduction of scenes spent with the Wilsons makes both of them more sympathetic, and Carraway by extension as well, with Nick's harsh descriptions of the working class excised from the film. The snobbishness and racism all come from that brutish old-money polo player Tom Buchanan.
Most importantly, the movie really moves, bouncing around just this side of irreverence to the source material. The softening of the narrative makes one of the film's major points -- Gatsby's delusional complicity in his own destruction, and the critique of the American Dream implicit in that delusionality -- less prominent, but it's still there. Indeed, I could argue that the film's frame story shifts some of that delusional obsession onto Nick Carraway, who may ultimately have missed the point of the story in a way similar to Gatsby.
The performances throughout are top-notch. DiCaprio makes a winning, obsessive, ultimately fragile Gatsby; Carey Mulligan is especially fine as Daisy, that object lesson on not turning women into Objects to be Won; Joel Edgerton really does a lovely job embodying the ideological and social ugliness of Tom Buchanan.
As with most film adaptations of complex novels, there are a number of Coles' Notes moments in which the film tells you a bit too much of what you're supposed to think about something (that famous eyeglass billboard gets about three too many lines of metaphoric explanation), but that pretty much goes with the territory of adaptation, especially given the budgetary scale of this film. But, you know, it's pretty good. Nobody embarrassed himself or herself. And boy, that set design and those costumes. Recommended.