CINEMA: Crass Luhrmann


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013, directed by Baz Luhrmann, 143 minutes, Australia/U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It is with no pleasure that I stand over the corpse of the long-promised Great Gatsby, extravagantly pieced together from parts of once-living things by the mad scientist/filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. I can’t say I ever had much faith that this enterprise was meant for greatness, but there at least seemed to be some excitement  possible if the director could just get the beast off the operating table. But no, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a stillborn Frankenstein; stare as you may, there are few real signs of life in this wrong-headed, king-sized disaster that only modern Hollywood would find it wise to make.

One can imagine how choice after choice seemed to make sense to Hollywood executives yet taken together they form a disastrously insufficient foundation for basic storytelling. After the success of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001’s Moulin Rouge, 2008’s Australia was a critical disappointment, a fanciful and generically-plotted love letter to his home country that seemed to lay bare the dramatic limitations of Luhrman’s hyperactively-glib style. With The Great Gatsby Luhrmann is re-teamed with Leonardo DiCaprio, his Romeo from the 1996 hit Romeo + Juliet, as they tackle another timeless classic. The giant party that rages on unabated at Gatsby’s house gives the perfect opportunity for Luhrmann to ladle on his patented Starburst-tinted bombast as well as fill the soundtrack with some anachronistic modern pop tunes. In fact this is pretty much demanded by his auteurist code. Tobey Maguire, the out-of-work former Spider-Man, is on hand to bring a little of Peter Parker’s gee whiz-ness to the idolizing Nick and who better to play the wealthy mystery man Gatsby than the Prince of Hollywood Leonardo DiCaprio? All in eye-popping 3-D! Could a barge-load of money and a raft of Oscars be far behind?

I won’t take for granted that we still live in the time when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cynical take on American Capitalism is a junior high standard, so here’s some Cliff Notes: Nick, a blue-blood bond broker and wannabe-writer in his 20s is slumming in a little Long Island bungalow` across the water from his cousin Daisy and her husband Thom. Next door from Nick is the estate of Jay Gatsby, a never-seen, much-rumored millionaire who throws constant parties at his mansion for New York’s elite. Nick is befriended by the handsome 32-year-old millionaire and finally recruited by Gatsby to facilitate a liaison with Nick’s married cousin Daisy, with whom Gatsby once had a fleeting romance.

The film’s problems start with Luhrmann, whose career has been a unremitting war on subtlety since its inception. Sure, the film is set in the gilded age of the 1920s but at its heart the film is an intimate study of class and romantic delusion and it demands an attention to character that seems impossible for the ADD mindset of Luhrmann. Having a shot on screen last for more than five or 10 seconds is a seeming anathema to the director, and in that space of time Luhrmann can throw images in your face yet your eye can’t linger to observe anything on its own. We need to witness for ourselves Nick’s infatuation with Gatsby, Gatsby’s adoration of Daisy, and Daisy’s hesitant love for Gatsby if the film’s central relationships are to come to life. Luhrmann’s manic slide show never lets us witness these bonds bloom and that emptiness can’t help by nullify every decent element of the film.

Luhrmann’s style is far too common in Hollywood today, shooting each character is a single shot and cutting between the two, rather than showing the two actors speaking together in a frame. This style wrestles away control from the performers and allows the director to fully control the scene’s pace but tends to rob a scene of the rhythm and humanity that is an actor’s trade. There are few other stylistic tics that can be blamed for the hollow emotional core of so much Hollywood product today. If I have a single plea to today’s filmmakers it would be “Let Actors Act.”

The cast all look fine in their period gear yet many seem to lack crucial attributes needed to inhabit their characters. The over-exposed DiCaprio has the look and charm of the princely Gatsby but he is too familiar to exude the mystery of a man privately conflicted, despite his trademark bratty angst. Carey Mulligan appears too full of healthy girlishness to capture Daisy’s vulnerability and, later, class-consciousness. Joel Edgarton (from Zero Dark Thirty) does manage to hit the right notes as Daisy’s philandering husband Thom, and Maguire delivers the wide-eyed “aw-shucks” performance we’ve all seen before. Sadly, a role meant for scene-stealing, the lusty and ambitious Maude (Isla Fisher) who is looking to escape the poverty of “Valley of Ashes,” is trimmed to a near cameo.

The film has also been sold as a coming-of-age for modern 3-D, showing that the process isn’t just for action films but that it has something to contribute to character-driven dramas as well. Gatsby does nothing to re-invent that particular wheel and like most modern 3-D, it is designed to give depth from the screen back, never taking advantage of the space available in the process that reaches out towards the audience. This effect never really gives us life-like depth, instead it tends to present the image as having two planes, with its subjects seemingly flattened like cut-outs separated from their backdrops. With the amount of computer-generated imagery infiltrating each shot, it serves to make the picture look more like collage than a seamless image, adding another level on unreality to the setting and the relationships. If the 3-D here proves anything, it is that can be another obstacle to suspending disbelief in a film.

All this technology is given its best showcase in the opening minutes when it reveals the lay of the land of 1920s Long Island. In one computer-generated single-shot, the camera swoops across the water from Daisy and Thom’s house, to show us Gatsby’s mansion and the long road that leads to the industrial hell where the workers slave and an unassuming gas station plays its part in the Great Man’s downfall. The physical presence of the outdoors is regularly emphasized by Australian filmmakers; in America “character” is king but the Aussies know that the landscape defines our lives as well.

The working class whose labor makes Gatsby’s lifestyle possible is only seen fleetingly in this version of the story, a victim of Luhrman’s disinterest in wrestling with the critique of the American Dream that is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s novel. The product tie-ins that are part of the promotion for the film make it hard to see this as anything but the crassest marketing at work: can you really take a skeptical eye at materialism while hawking Tiffany’s diamonds or Brooks Brothers expensive suits? With Luhrmann’s slavish loyalty to razzle-dazzle and his predilection for modern soundtracks, he seems loathe to have his films appear old-fashioned and he dumps the idea that “money can’t buy happiness” as if it is the most corny and out-dated concept of all. The notion that Gatsby was let down by the American Dream is lost, instead emphasizing the line (the words literally dance around the screen) where Nick describes Gatsby as “The single most hopeful person I ever met.” It is no surprise that with Hollywood’s modern Gatsby, the powerless promises of ‘Hope’ trump social criticism every time.