Monday, May 13, 2013

A Defense of the <i>Gatsby</i> Movie By Someone Who Loves the Book

Posted By on Mon, May 13, 2013 at 12:13 PM

Great Gatsby movie Baz Luhrmann
The last time Baz Luhrmann volunteered for the task of adapting classic literature, he dressed up Shakespearean language in 90s-fantasia fashion and gunplay, not to mention music-video electricity, in a distinctive take on Romeo and Juliet—perhaps the most memorable of that decade's many Bard rejiggerings (but please don't tell Kenneth Branagh; it seems impolite). The movies that followed—the musical Moulin Rouge and the epic Australia—were not based on anything more than the thinnest slivers of history, but they both feel inspired by archetypal if unnamed classics, particularly Moulin Rouge, the best movie musical of the past, well, at least two or three decades, maybe more depending on your reverence. It struck some as am onslaught of ADD symptoms—a cry for help, even—but Luhrmann is one of the few directors to crossbreed successfully The Movie Musical with its Beatles-borne, 80s-dominating replacement The Music Video. It takes some stones to have your characters warble "The Sound of Music" in the first 15 minutes of your big-budget musical, but I guess Luhrmann knew he had the goods; Moulin Rouge is, in the end, a far better movie and musical than The Sound of Music.

This is all to say that Luhrmann has had plenty of technical practice in grappling with cultural history before tackling that Towering Work of American Literature The Great Gatsby. Yet adapting Fitzgerald is not much like adapting Shakespeare, or even synthesizing a century of pop musicals—Gatsby is a slimmer, more concise work, but slippery and deceptively difficult to grasp and place onscreen. Witness the last theatrical release to reach across the bay at the green light, 1974's soft-focus nightmare (a low-budget A&E production, circa 2000, with the tantalizingly spot-on casting of Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway, remains, as yet, unseen by me). It shares a title and most major plot points and many lines of narration with the book of the same name, but despite fine performances from Robert Redford (as Gatsby) and a young-ish Sam Waterston (as Nick), it proceeds with a deadly, literal-minded trudge. It's tragic for the wrong reasons. Gatsby the novel is rich with memorable characters and themes, but it presents a filmmaker's burden by presenting those characters and themes in sentence after sentence of beautiful, impeccable prose. Beautiful sentences are not cinematic; Hunger Games sentences, unadorned by style or grace or wit beyond their spartan directness, are.

And yet how can you strip those sentences away from Gatsby? That question seems to have bedeviled the 1974 version's director, Jack Clayton, and wunderkind screenwriter, one Francis Ford Coppola, and judging from the new version, it ate away at Luhrmann, too. Despite his taste (and, at times, wonderful tastelessness) for visual dazzle, Luhrmann leaves chunks of text intact, or tries to. It's not always a bad idea; in the dialogue, delivered by a sterling cast, the Fitzgerald phrasing has stylized snap. When Leonard DiCaprio, as Gatsby, delivers his monologue-of-lies backstory to his new friend and next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in an automobile speeding out of Long Island toward Manhattan, the breathless (and coming from DiCaprio's mouth, typically insistent and intense) language tumbles out over the visualizations of Gatsby's fabrications (rich parents, war heroics, legitimate business success), keeping pace with each other like one of Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge mash-up numbers.

But poor Maguire, so able with dazed reaction shots, must also read passages from the novel in voiceover. Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce come up with a device, in perhaps the most significant change to the text: the movie opens with Nick in a sanitarium, seeking treatment for alcohol and anger issues, among others. His story of summer in Roaring-Twenties Long Island is told first to a doctor and then, at the doctor's encouragement, into his typewriter. He explains how he came to West Egg, how his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), married to upper-class brute Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), turned out to have a shared past with his new-money neighbor Jay Gatsby, and how Gatsby threw impossibly elaborate parties with the equally impossible task of luring Daisy back into his orbit and reenacting the past he has idealized. The whole story, in other words, is framed by Nick—just as it was in the book.

As such, and given the presence of sanitariums in Fitzgerald's life as well as Tender Is the Night, the device isn't a desecration; it even provides a cue that perhaps Nick is not the stable, upright observer he wants to be. And sometimes, yes, I swooned just to hear Fitzgerald's sentences read over Luhrmann's gorgeous imagery (about which more in a moment). But preserving the literal narrative voice of Gatsby is a fool's errand; lines still need to be truncated, and truncation still results in moments where Nick's verbal explanations step on Luhrmann's visual ones. DiCaprio is an expressive enough actor that we don't need Nick explaining how he feels about Daisy; if his face can't quite take the place of Fitzgerald's prose, well, Maguire reading it aloud isn't going to help.

Great Gatsby movie Baz Luhrmann
Despite sharing this weakness with the misbegotten '74 version, though, Luhrmann's Great Gatsby gets far more right than wrong, and its frequent rightness is dazzling—even, in Luhrmann's expansive, embracing way, personal. It shouldn't come as a surprise that he attacks Gatsby's party scenes with gusto, scoring them with music that shifts, at a tempo, between old songs, proud anachronisms, covers, and remixes, with a heavy emphasis on Jay-Z (touted as a soundtrack guru, he also turns out to have an executive producer credit on the actual movie) family and friends (Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," which backed the movie's initial trailer, turns up briefly in the film; Jay-Z's wife Beyonce shares a cover of Amy Winehouse's retro-y "Back to Black"; Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" gets a jazzy cover by Emeli Sande; and so on). The first West Egg party sequence builds and builds, with Nick stumbling about, hardly recognizing anyone, until he, as in the book, falls into conversation with a stranger (left unseen by the audience, naturally) who turns out to be—cue fireworks, cue "Rhapsody in Blue"—Gatsby! The entire movie may have been filmed in a 20s fantasyland constructed in Australia and digitally augmented around the world, but this scene is an All-American stunner.

But this Gatsby isn't all crescendos, and in fact turns intimate at times, driven by an impeccable cast. DiCaprio, so often cited for his forever-youthful face (cf. death of American masculinity, movie stars all sissy babies now, where are the guys who can punch or rape or whatever, etc.), makes a damn near perfect Jay Gatsby. In real life, he's approaching 40 and, with it, a decade more on the clock than this iconic character, but that clean-cut non-mug of his gives Gatsby just the right mix of quasi-sophistication and youthful naivete. He's at once imposing in his confidence and childlike in his desire to please Daisy, with plenty of shots of him more or less lurking in the bushes. Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan is a bit more opaque than the flighty and careless woman on the page, but Mulligan's charm fills in what the book allows us, by virtue of projection or imagination or description (take your pick) to provide ourselves: a reason, however flimsy and underdeveloped, for Gatsby's love and delusion. The character could have used, perhaps, a touch more upper-class thoughtlessness, but Luhrmann isn't romanticizing—it couldn't be clearer that Gatsby is nuts for her in the bad way, not least in their reintroduction scene, from which the film mines unexpected hilarity. Rather, he's humanizing. He can't hate Daisy, or even truly disdain her, because anyone short of a hissable villain gains his sympathy. Edgerton's Tom takes that role here, a little too easily, but then again, I don't recall Tom getting much sympathy from me during any of my three times with the book, either.

Now's as good a time as any to mention that The Great Gatsby is, indeed, one of my favorite books. Somehow, I doubt that this is original. And just as it seems difficult, bordering on understandably impossible, for many critics to engage with Gatsby without involving their own feelings for and interpretations of the book, having read some reviews it's difficult for me to focus solely on Gatsby the movie without thinking of Gatsby the literature that film critics apparently feel a deep-seated need to defend—and their accompanying tendencies toward English-prof lecturing in doing so. Luhrmann, goes a school of thought that may well have been completed around the release of the first trailer, has captured the superficial glitz of the novel but not its soul, reducing Gatsby and Daisy to just another romance doomed by melodramatic circumstance and cinematic oversimplification, abetted by overdesigned clothes and overdressed sets.

Thing is, this dismissal of Gatsby as just one more Baz Luhrmann extravaganza flies in the face of some pretty damn obvious stylistic departures, even if the framework feels familiar (the man at the typewriter could be as easily borrowed from Moulin Rouge as from a sense of Fitzgerald's personal history). The denial would be more appropriate from actual English professors; from film critics who are supposed to, you know, watch movies, not just pontificate on their themes, it's a little disappointing. Most obviously, Luhrmann is shooting in 3D, which slows his cutting considerably, lest the audience's eye sockets throw their contents right up in protest. Romeo and Juleit and Moulin Rouge both begin in a hush that quickly shoots into a frenzy, and that technique is simply unavailable here.

Great Gatsby movie Baz Luhrmann
Maybe this is why, in a few early dialogue scenes, the movie feels antsy and off-rhythm, as if Luhrmann has been shackled by the inability to whip up a tornado of exposition. Once he powers past the point where his earlier movies would usually reach fever pitch, his style feels reinvigorated by the challenges of semi-restraint. The camera still movies in grand, computer-assisted pans and zooms and cranes, but it also lingers on the after-parties, with Gatsby and Nick chatting over Gatsby's trashed terrace in the wee hours of the morning. The movie has glitz, of course, with beautiful costumes and Gatsby's castle-like mansion, and digitized grandeur in visualizing the valley of ashes where Myrtle lives with her mechanic husband George (Jason Clarke). It doesn't look real, exactly; sometimes the movie's world is as alien and fantastical as science fiction. But it's good sci-fi, with a human core. Why shouldn't The Roaring Twenties, nearly a century after the fact, look more like a painting than a photograph?

Of course, paintings trust the illusion of 3D to come naturally when needed. Gatsby's 3D cinematography is less integral than it was in Life of Pi, and, in 3D auteur terms, more akin to its use in Hugo: neat-looking, intelligently employed, but not exactly a revelation. Even so, there are some wonderful touches. When Nick goes into the city with Tom and his mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher), gazing out into the windows of Manhattan, Luhrmann uses the 3D to pull some of the mini-tableaux forward, befitting Nick's drunken state. At this moment, and so many others, the movie sings like the musical it could have been, and almost is anyway. He's not in nonstop-showman mode, either; there are more evocative, less exuberant moments, as when Luhrmann uses the depth of 3D to compose a beautiful overhead shot with Gatsby lying at rest on the floor as Nick lies in anguish at the top of a winding staircase.

At 140 minutes, this Gatsby goes on longer than strictly necessary, especially considering the way the screentime of supporting characters like Myrtle, George, and Jordan Baker (played with sly delight by newcomer Elizabeth Debicki) gets sacrificed in favor of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, and Nick's narration (even the movie's dedication to voiceover can't translate how much of the supporting characters are colored by Nick's description more than actual scenes in the book). The adaptation is a little unwieldy—half interpretation, half tribute. The interpretation, for the most part, works better, playing up the notion of idealization (Gatsby's of Daisy; Nick's of Gatsby), while the tribute de-prioritizes class differences and, according to NPR's Linda Holmes, the callow hypocrisy of Nick Carraway as well as the emptiness of spoiled rich girl Daisy. I'm wary, though, of bemoaning a movie missing "the whole point" of a novel as rich as Gatsby. Perhaps the only convenience of adapting great literature is having a starting-text too rich to require its every facet be served equally, fully, and perfectly. Luhrmann's film, true to Nick's warning to Gatsby, can't repeat the past: neither the authentic Roaring-Twenties experience so many imagine any adaptation owes the audience, nor, probably, the rush of love you may have felt for the book as a teenager or an adult or whoever you were when you first read it. Intentional or not, that gap feels resonant. In the aftermath of this movie (and its surprising, gratifying box office success—will auteur takes on summer-reading-list lit become a new summer movie programming slot?!), I wonder if it's possible to film a perfect Great Gatsby or if the book, at least for its most ardent fans, will remain a green light on a dock.

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