The Great Gatsby
With his 2001 pop-opera on film "Moulin Rouge," Baz Luhrmann combined lush visual spectacle with nonstop (even hyperactive) kineticism. The result was a film that was unstoppably watchable: It just about grabbed the viewer by the lapels. What "Moulin Rouge" did not have, however, was a sense of narrative clarity, as it jumped from moment to moment like a gazelle on speed.
There's more than a little bit of that warp-speed ethos going on in Luhrmann's latest offering, "The Great Gatsby." Because Luhrmann is adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel for the screen, he's forced to follow a more discernible narrative structure, but that doesn't dull his fleetness of cinematic foot: This film is so amped up it could fly right into the fourth, fifth, and sixth dimensions, were they available. As it is, "Gatsby" has to content itself with a magnificent foray into 3D, an idea that in the abstract sounds like overkill -- but in the course of the viewing experience, the addition of the third dimension bolsters Luhrmann's zippy, inventive camera work in a synergistic way that's exciting, mesmerizing, and outrageously fun to watch.
Adding to the movie’s freewheeling giddiness are the anachronisms Luhrmann scatters, bountifully and with grinning mischief. The instantly electrifying soundtrack, mixing orchestral chestnuts with genres, seems like a voiceover for the temporal anarchy on the screen; when we glimpse a vintage roadster on a bridge into Manhattan, in which a small crowd of African Americans frolic to hip hop, champagne on ice at their collective elbow and chauffeured by a white guy in uniform, it’s like guzzling a slug of that bubbly -- it hits you with a thrilling sense of dislocation.
The film’s style is pure Luhrmann, but it’s also tied intimately to the character of the title character, J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mystery man with mysterious millions at his command with which to throw grand parties at his huge manse. Gatsby lives his life the way Luhrmann deploys his lens: At full throttle all the time, weaving and darting with a speed that’s cloaked in the utmost cool and control. Talking a mile a minute, and pressing his custom made hot rod of a car to at least twice that velocity, Gatsby flits, coaxes, seduces, and sparkles; he’s a dynamo with a sometimes overdone affect and matching sense of fashion. He’s larger than life, and New York City (presented here like the Emerald City of Oz, complete with red biplanes and gleaming skyscrapers) is his playground.
Sitting next to Gatsby’s pile on the bay is a tiny, but tidy, little home where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) lives. Carraway is a veteran of World War I, and his plan for civilian life is to get in on the Wall Street action of the Roaring ’20s. After ploughing through a stack of books on how to be a broker, he throws himself into the financial business. He doesn’t get rich, but he scrapes along. He pays the occasional visit to his wealthy cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who lives across the bay in a stately home of their own. Then comes the day Carraway is invited to one of Gatsby’s parties -- a wild affair, orgiastic and rapturous, light years removed from the booze and pill-fueled debauches to which Tom drags Carraway. (The two men are old college buddies, which explains a lot.)
From there, it’s a quick, short step to Carraway’s position in close orbit to the man himself. But as he works through the layers that swaddle Gatsby’s identity and motives, Carraway begins to pick up on unexpected things -- things that should be red flags for him, but for the core of upbeat decency that Gatsby keeps shrouded in his dazzling shell of glitz and bonhomie. Gatsby is a romantic; more, he’s a fount of optimism and can-do energy. And he’s in love -- with none other than Carraway’s cousin, Daisy.
Carraway, in voiceover (the story is told in flashback, as he’s writing it all down), notes that he keeps ending up in the position of an observer, the keeper of "other people’s secrets," perched within the sphere of high society and yet not really belonging there. But he’s also in a similar position with respect to his own extended family: He sees firsthand how Tom cheats on Daisy, and he senses how this affects her. For Daisy to have an admirer in Gatsby is a matter of inevitable complications, but for the sake of her happiness (and Gatsby’s, too) Carraway becomes their enabler as they embark on a summer-long affair.
The movie, too, is summery and passionate, replete with stunning period design (by Catherine Martin, who’s probably going to hear her name called come Oscar nominations time) and almost-too-perfect cinematography by Simon Duggan.
"Almost too perfect?" In a way, yes; if "The Great Gatsby" has a failing, it’s in that it’s so beautifully realized, and so meticulously detailed, that it looks utterly fake. Every gorgeous shot seems to have been buffed, polished, and plated with pure gold. The film’s look is so stylized that it’s all extreme angles and forced perspectives, and every long shot (especially of mansions and city-scapes) looks like a divine marriage between CGI and masterful miniature model work. One’s not sure whether to inhabit this world or keep it under glass on the mantle.
Even so, I spent a tad more than two and a half hours utterly in love with this movie. The cast bring a powerful human charge here that matches Luhrmann’s technical acrobatics; not even the occasional clunking line of dialogue detracts.
Can the blaze of romantic passion forge a man into something more? Can it be his undoing? Yes, and yes; we don’t need DiCaprio and Luhrmann to tell us this. But when they show this timeless observation to us with this much style and speed, framing it in a matchlessly lustrous production, it captivates and thrills.