Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Not mere hyperbole

The Great Gatsby (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.10.13

Teachers have been aggravated for generations, when Hollywood brings a classic novel to the big screen; too many lazy students then seek answers from the film, rather than reading the book.

The pomp and splash of a fancy nightclub cannot prevent Tom (Joel Edgerton, far
right) from noticing that his wife, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), is being wooed shamelessly
by Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, far left). Nick (Tobey Maguire), growing accustomed to
the emotional chaos that inevitably erupts when in the company of his new friends,
adopts his favorite means of retreat: another stiff drink.
Well, here’s a twist: Director Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant, mesmerizing adaptation of The Great Gatsby likely will encourage people to buy and read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Rarely has a movie so successfully breathed fresh excitement into a literary work which, no matter how well regarded by scholars, often is regarded as a yawn by readers.

It’s like struggling through Shakespeare’s prose on the printed page, absorbing very little along the way, and then seeing the play come to energetic life when staged with a cast of articulate and charismatic actors.

Yep, Luhrmann’s accomplishment is that impressive.

For openers, the film is a visual masterpiece; it’s literally breathtaking. (Cinematographer Simon Duggan, take a bow.) Never has 3-D cinematography been used so cleverly, or so successfully; the dimensionality opens up the narrative’s symbolic settings, thus lending greater emotional weight to the class-burdened archetypes represented by the five primary characters.

At the same time, Luhrmann and co-scripter Craig Pearce are impressively faithful to Fitzgerald’s original prose, at times bringing large chunks of text to life via the hyper-realism that Luhrmann employed so well in Moulin Rouge.

You’ll not soon forget production designer Catherine Martin’s grandiosely ghastly realization of Fitzgerald’s so-called “Valley of Ashes,” the desolate, begrimed region that separates the decadence of both New York City and the outlying aristocratic enclave of West Egg. (Fitzgerald was inspired by the hellish trash-burning zone along the road from Great Neck to Manhattan, the sole transit in an era before the Long Island Expressway or the Grand Central Parkway.)

Given Luhrmann’s sensibilities and visual pizzazz, it’s easy to imagine him particularly captivated by one element in Fitzgerald’s description of this site: the huge “eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg” that stare out from the remnants of an oculist’s long-discarded billboard. Almost more than Gatsby’s palatial estate — also a spectacular setting — these giant eyes become one of the film’s driving images: the blank stare of an omniscient being who catalogues but does not interfere with the events that take place in the gas station located in a small settlement — not even a town — perched on one edge of this stygian, lung-fouling inferno.

This story’s title notwithstanding, its most consequential character is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), and it’s therefore appropriate that the film opens as we meet him under somewhat bleak circumstances: friendless, crippled by anxiety, dulled by alcoholism, and confined to a sanitarium. Encouraged by a kindly doctor (Jack Thompson, wonderful in this small role) to write about the events that have brought him to this state, Nick pens the tale — first in fits and starts, then in a near frenzy — that subsequently unfolds before us.

Aside from being a reasonable extrapolation of Fitzgerald’s novel, this gimmick also grants Maguire the opportunity to continue as occasional off-camera narrator. He handles this role superbly, just as his teenage protagonist did in Ang Lee’s 1997 film, The Ice Storm. Maguire’s gentle, often guileless delivery includes an undertone of ironic mockery, as if warning us not to put too much faith in his character’s ability as an unbiased witness.

The story proper takes place in 1922, as Nick takes a job as a bond salesman in New York’s bustling business district, and rents a tiny “gardener’s shack” in West Egg, Long Island. He cannot help being aware of the insanely lavish parties thrown every week at the adjacent mansion, owned by a mysterious individual — Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) — who inspires ever-wilder rumors by guests who’ve never even met him.

Across the bay, spotlighted by a hypnotic green dock marker, Nick can just make out the equally ostentatious home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan). Tom is a buddy of Nick’s from Yale; Daisy is Nick’s second cousin. School ties notwithstanding, it’s difficult to imagine the sensitive Nick befriending the arrogant, boorish and unpleasantly racist Tom, who despite all his unsavory qualities enjoys the automatic social standing granted as a result of his family’s “old money” status.

For her part, Daisy is a vacuous, near-useless appendage: not even intelligent enough to belong in the company of the neo-feminist flappers whom she resembles in dress and hairstyle. Like Nick, Daisy is a sensitive flower, easily crushed by the loutish Tom, who we quickly learn cheats on her quite brazenly. Although clearly wounded by this behavior, she sees no way out.

Naïvely viewing herself as typical of the entire gender, Daisy suggests that all women should aspire to nothing grander than being the fool. Mulligan — giving this line a bitter, heartbreaking reading — makes Daisy a character we both loathe and pity. It’s difficult to admire a character so shallow, and so unwilling to stand up for herself ... and yet we cannot help feeling sorry for her. Just as Nick can’t.

Daisy may be maddening, but Mulligan’s performance is captivating; she conveys her character’s fragility with every glance and step, as if even a mild rebuke might be enough to make her shatter like a glass figurine. Indeed, Tom probably views Daisy as just such an item: something to be admired in a display case, and taken out and handled only when he feels like it.

Re-connecting with Tom and Daisy brings Nick into contact with socialite pro-golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), an elegant, beautiful and profoundly intimidating woman whose role isn’t quite as well developed here, as in Fitzgerald’s novel. Debicki certainly is a striking presence, her coquettish manner adding considerable bite to all her dialogue, but Jordan serves mostly to maneuver Nick, somewhat like a chess pawn, into small acts that will have profound consequences.

Nick soon receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties, and is surprised to discover that he’s the sole recipient of such a formal notice; everybody else just shows up. Although this could be considered a subtle insult, Gatsby apparently intended the gesture to be kind; this clandestinely wealthy businessman genuinely wanted to meet his humbler neighbor ... although, as Nick soon realizes, the actual reason is somewhat self-serving.

Back-story emerges slowly; we eventually learn that Gatsby courted Daisy years earlier, but their budding romance was curtailed by his being sent to Europe during World War I. They lost touch; Daisy settled for a proposal from Tom. But now that Gatsby is situated in Daisy’s back yard, he fully intends to resume where they left off, even if that means casting Tom aside like the bunting discarded after one of Jay’s extravagant parties.

Tom certainly deserves to be deserted, no question ... but as Nick soon learns, a man with Gatsby’s fondness for evasiveness tends to gloss over key details. Yes, Daisy still loves him, as is obvious when she sees him again. But as for the rest...

Therein lies a tale. Several, actually.

DiCaprio has been building a stable of iconic performances, both from literature and real life, and his Gatsby is as beguiling as his Howard Hughes. It’s not easy to be both aloof and charming, but DiCaprio manages that delicate balance, along with a wealth of other emotional details. Watching him merely stand, surveying the uncontrolled mob at one of his parties, we absorb the depth, pain and underlying vulnerability that Gatsby works so hard to conceal. We simply cannot take our eyes off him.

DiCaprio gets considerable mileage out of Gatsby’s signature phrase, “old sport,” which he employs to transform otherwise bland statements into queries, accusations or flinty taunts. DiCaprio effortlessly commands a room, making Gatsby the smartest, most debonair and most interesting person present. He suggests provocative depths that Robert Redford’s pale interpretation couldn’t begin to convey, in the pallid 1974 film.

At the same time, DiCaprio’s manner transforms — becomes somehow gentler, humbler — when Gatsby is with Nick. It’s almost as if Nick has been selected as Gatsby’s amanuensis: the one individual privileged to learn the truth. We assume Gatsby grants this act of genuine friendship because he trusts Nick; in turn, Nick repays the courtesy, and (for the most part) chooses not to judge Gatsby’s marriage-wrecking pursuit of Daisy.

And yet this is a delicate, dangerous world into which Nick has ventured: one ruled ruthlessly by convention and social status. “Friendship,” per se, may not be enough.

Jason Clarke is memorable as George Wilson, an impoverished mechanic who runs the aforementioned gas station in the Valley of Ashes, and who fails to realize that his strumpet of a wife (Isla Fisher, as Myrtle) is cheating on him ... with Tom Buchanan, whom George knows only as a regular customer. It’s easy to see George as the genesis of Roxie Hart’s similarly naïve husband in the musical Chicago (which, I must point out, has its origins in a 1926 play that was based on two 1924 incidents that would have been known to Fitzgerald).

It’s rather difficult, however, to imagine how and why Tom ever would have become interested in a cheap floozy such as Myrtle.

Indeed, such contrived soap opera flourishes may work against this film’s success. Luhrmann’s magnificent directorial zest notwithstanding, his Gatsby isn’t nearly as much fun as Moulin Rouge, despite an equally inventive and cleverly employed soundtrack. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” hasn’t been this well matched to a film since Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and Luhrmann spices the period compositions of W.C. Handy, Cole Porter and Jelly Roll Morton with provocative modern tracks by Beyoncé, Jay Z and Florence and the Machine.

Once Gatsby’s various “deep, dark secrets” are exposed, however — and, nearly a century later, these revelations aren’t such a much — we’re left with characters who, at their core, just aren’t very interesting. DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan absolutely hold our attention in the moment, as does the film itself ... but I’m not sure too many viewers will wish to sit for 143 minutes a second time, let alone a third or fourth.

Still, there’s no question that Fitzgerald’s novel will enjoy fresh exposure.

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