‘Gatsby’: Cinematic hot mess — in a good way | AspenTimes.com

‘Gatsby’: Cinematic hot mess — in a good way

Richard Roeper
Universal Press Syndicate
This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)
AP | Warner Bros. Pictures

Given the wretched and sometimes wonderful excesses of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” not to mention a trailer that gave the impression Luhrmann’s interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” would be one extended anachronistic music video, it turns out Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is first and foremost F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”

Fitzgerald’s heartbreakingly poetic prose wins out. Sometimes his work is literally right there on the screen – deceptively simple strings of a dozen words or so, as powerful and relevant now as they were nearly a century ago.

This is not to say the 2013 version of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t a cinematic hot mess most of the time. It’s big and bold and brassy, filmed in crisp tones dominated by blues and reds (and, of course, a certain green light), and it fills every second of its 142-minute running time with images designed to take your breath away, whether you’re marveling at the overhead shots of Manhattan circa 1922 or appreciating the old-fashioned movie star charisma of Leonardo DiCaprio in his prime. (You want him to wear a pink suit and drive a yellow car? OK, he’ll wear a pink suit and drive a yellow car, and he’ll own it.)

To be sure, there’s music from Jay-Z and will.i.am and Nero, self-consciously brilliant tracking shots, astonishingly beautiful visual effects, and a costume budget to end all costume budgets. Previous efforts to bring Fitzgerald’s fever-dream vision of the Roaring Twenties to the big screen seem almost quaint by comparison.

“Gatsby’s fatal flaw isn’t his grandiose plan. It’s that he never had considered the real-world consequences if the plan worked. This version of ‘Gatsby’ gets that.”

Yet amidst all the fireworks and the cascading champagne and the insanely over-the-top parties, we’re reminded again and again that “The Great Gatsby” is about a man who spends half a decade constructing an elaborate monument to the woman of his dreams, all of it in the name of saying, “Look what I’ve done for you. Look how much I love you.”

And never once does he consider the possibility she never asked him to do it in the first place.

Luhrmann’s dazzling and often polarizing sense of visual style is perfectly suited to the first half of “The Great Gatsby,” with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway narrating the story of “the most hopeful man I ever knew” — the mysterious Jay Gatsby, inventor of the rave, host of weekly parties that draw the most successful, the most beautiful, the most decadent New Yorkers of the early 1920s. The skies explode with fireworks to the sounds of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as Carraway finally meets the elusive Gatsby, who is rarely seen at his own parties.

DiCaprio’s Gatsby is perhaps the most overtly vulnerable version of the character who’s part legend, part hero, part cipher and somewhat of a living ghost. When Gatsby at long last reunites with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, in a delicate and intricately crafted performance), he’s such a bumbling wreck it’s as if we’re suddenly in a modern romantic comedy — and not a very subtle one.

Some of the supporting characters have been miscast. Joel Edgerton is a terrific actor, but with his hulking presence and his villainous mustache, his Tom Buchanan is so loathsome we lose sympathy for Daisy; how could she ever fall in love with this bitter, serial cheating lout? An almost unrecognizable Isla Fisher turns Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, into a shrill caricature. (Faring better: Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, as the nefarious gangster Meyer Wolfsheim.)

When the veil of mystery about Gatsby is lifted and the party sequences come to a crashing halt, when the story becomes more about confrontations at lunch tables and in hotel rooms, you can almost sense Luhrmann fidgeting as he tries to figure out how to keep the plates spinning. DiCaprio and company are certainly capable of handling the dialogue-heavy scenes when the true nature of just about everyone in the room is revealed, but such intense confrontations don’t play to Luhrmann’s strength. When he goes to the slo-mo cam for a moment of violence or employs some other attention-getting visual trick, it only serves to distract. Let the story play out.

As is often the case with that other slim and brilliant American novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” we are given the assignment of reading “The Great Gatsby” when we are too young to appreciate all that is happening, on the pages and between the lines. Read those books again when you’ve lived some life and felt some real pain, and it’s like you’re reading them for the first time.

Gatsby’s fatal flaw isn’t his grandiose plan. It’s that he never had considered the real-world consequences if the plan worked. This version of “Gatsby” gets that.

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