Sunday, May 19, 2013
I went to see the 3D version last night and decided it was more an event than a film. Baz Luhrmann's vision of F.Scott Fitzgerald's novel was certainly a spectacle, and the first forty-five minutes or so were full of the same kind of frenetic over stylized musical numbers and grand gestures that made Luhrmann's MOULIN ROUGE seem so daring and original.
But contemporary music and music styles used in period pieces isn't as original as it once was and using that technique for an already cinematic novel like THE GREAT GATSBY seemed like overkill to me.
Then there was Luhrmann's device of setting the entire novel in the context of the narrator's being in some sort of recovery institution using writing as a healing tool and thus writing Fitzgerald's masterpiece like some confessional therapy journal. A disservice to not just F. Scott but to every novelist who has labored over their books with the discipline and craft all art demands, or at least in creating the facility to take advantage of inspiration as more than diaristic compulsion.
And then there was the whole 3D thing. The new glasses certainly make the experience easier to endure than the old red and green cardboard ones, but the effect, at least for this flick, is not of three dimensional reality, but rather like looking at one of those children's pop up books, or the staggered rows of ducks and other targets in a shooting booth on the boardwalk, or even worse, what I experienced after my brain operation when my mind couldn't integrate what I was seeing into a composite but rather made every object distinct so that each had its own plane of existence which was just too much stimuli for my brain to take. Some scenes were less that way than others, especially in the slower more confined settings of the second half of the movie, but overall the effect was to distance the story from reality, for me.
And I still find Leonardo DiCaprio miscast when his character is supposed to be an older, experienced and manly man of the world because, despite his physique, his little boy face and head just can't carry that kind of maturity, though his scenes with the always brilliant Carey Mulligan were always fascinating to watch, they work very well together.
I didn't quite buy Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway either, though he too had some moments where his acting chops paid off. But I have to blame most of what I saw as missing the mark on Luhrmann. The first half of the movie was so frenzied the direction seemed to be purposely over stylized, almost as if he were riffing off silent movie conventions, but then the rest of the movie was pushed in a less silly more melodramatic TV Soap Opera way, as if he changed his mind halfway through, though we know movies aren't made chronologically so it was obviously a deliberate choice.
Another strange choice of Lahrmann's was having Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan play the Meyer Wolfsheim character, loosely based on Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish mobster who rigged the 1919 World Series and is played brilliantly on BOARDWALK EMPIRE by Michael Stuhlbarg. Why have a character Fitzgerald describes pretty much like the real Rothstein, a short, balding, New York Jewish man played by a tall, swarthy, long haired (even more so for that period, his hair looks like it's from the 1970s and his fedora and suit look like they're from a 1940s gangster flick) Indian from Bollywood!
Despite these caveats, and more—not just the music was anachronistic—there were enough moments—like several between DiCaprio and Mulligan—and noble failures among them—a lot of Australian actor Joel Edgerton's choices playing Tom Buchanan—to repeatedly regain my attention and make the movie going experience worth the price and effort for me.
There have been other attempts to bring Fitzgerald's masterpiece to the screen that have also failed to capture what makes the novel still so compelling. The problem, it seems to me, and Luhrmann's attempt especially, is that filmmakers fail to trust the material. Even though this GATSBY gets most of its dialogue straight from the book, it edits it in such a way, along with other scenes and minor characters, that the perfect plotting and pacing of the book gets diluted. Luhrmann and others seem to think an audience might not get the full force of Fitzgerald's genius without their help in underlining the highlights and editing out the historically specific that can't be projected in contemporary terms, yet these details are what would make a movie so much more engaging.
I recommend rereading the book after seeing this movie (I spent all morning doing just that, thankfully it's also Fitzgerald's fastest read). THE GREAT GATSBY was always the most cinematic of Fitzgerald's books, written in scenes and dialogue like a good screenplay, only in this one the stage directions are written in the language of the best lyric poetry. I'd love to see someone someday shoot it just as it is.