Niagara Gazette

May 14, 2013

CALLERI: 'The Great Gatsby' looks at an era through a funhouse lens

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — There have now been six attempts to film “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel about a mysterious wealthy man in love with a memory.

There is the silent effort from 1926, a noirish melodrama made in 1949 with Alan Ladd and Betty Field, and the most famous cinematic Gatsby played by Robert Redford in 1974, with Mia Farrow as Daisy, in a beautiful but dull version. A television movie from 2000 stars British actor Toby Stephens as Gatsby and Mira Sorvino as Daisy. There’s also “G,” a Black hip-hop edition based loosely on Fitzgerald’s book.

Director Baz Luhrmann returns the “The Great Gatsby” to the screen, but the novel’s meaning eludes him. The story is a tragedy revolving around a love triangle. Caught up in a dance of romantic domination are Jay Gatsby and the married couple Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Five years after failing in a relationship with Daisy, Gatsby’s heart still aches for her.

Fitzgerald writes about corruption and excess. The Constitutional prohibition of alcoholic beverages fueled the irreverent times. It also helped create the gangster mythology in which Hollywood revels. The author captured with literary precision the Roaring Twenties in a tale about mid-westerners being overwhelmed by the perils of New York City. They lose their values. However, the novel is also a powerful love story

The millionaire Gatsby is a bootlegger, who grew up poor in North Dakota and reinvented himself with a new name and new criminal friends. He lives in a literal castle on the north shore of Long Island and hosts over-the-top parties to assuage his loneliness. Gatsby wants to steal Daisy from Tom. But there is resistance from her combative husband, as well as from the flirtatious Daisy. They both come from old money. To Tom, Gatsby is an interloper, a parvenu.

Luhrmann’s approach heightens the booze-riddled party sequences, which are filled here with raucous music and bedlam. He is also obsessed with fast cars. The wild parties and road races overwhelm the love story. When the director and his screenwriter Craig Pearce focus on the tragic romance, the novel’s allure intensifies. But Luhrmann has miscalculated. He’s made two movies. One that relies on the strong drama inherent in the lives of the characters. And another that relies on shallow escapades and the director’s usual madcap, over-the-top editing. The dichotomy is jarring.

Another problem is the addition of a framing device that’s not in the novel, which is set in 1922. Seven years later, at the brink of the Great Depression, narrator Nick Carraway, a stock broker from middle America who rents a gardener’s cottage next to Gatsby’s fortress, is telling the story from a sanitarium where he’s being treated for alcoholism. Strangely, Luhrmann and Pearce are now judging the era they celebrated. They also gloss over Fitzgerald’s intimation that Carraway and female golf professional Jordan Baker are unsure of their sexual nature.

As is to be expected from Luhrmann, the music is all over the place, mostly discordant songs that don’t jibe with what was heard in the era. The use of rock and roll and contemporary pop worked in his “Moulin Rouge“ and “Romeo + Juliet,” but they are discordant here. Hip hop? It takes you out of the movie. When Gatsby is introduced at his mansion during a party 35-minutes into the film, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” is playing and fireworks explode like messengers. This is a cinematic moment stolen right from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

Toby Maguire is good as Nick until Luhrmann gives him nothing to do except to continue to narrate the story. In the Plaza Hotel sequence, as Gatsby and Tom engage in a nasty argument for control of Daisy, Nick does nothing but stare at the confrontation. Another problem is that the rivals are fighting over Carey Mulligan's utterly dull Daisy. She plays her as weak and uncertain. She should be stronger. Daisy may be coy, but she’s also manipulative. Mulligan’s not believable in the part. She's a fuzzy fantasy.

Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Gatsby, as is Joel Edgerton as Tom. His realization that he could lose his wife builds with seething anger and contempt. DiCaprio understands the lonely Gatsby perfectly. He plays the nobody who became the talk of the town with style and heartbreak. The film is available in unnecessary 3D. The glasses darken a beautifully photographed movie. There's an important line of dialogue about Gatsby being the “man in the pink suit.” However, because of the gray 3D glasses, I didn't realize the suit was pink until it was mentioned.

“The Great Gatsby” proves that Luhrmann misunderstood what Jay Gatsby represents. He is not spectacle. He is emptiness.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.