Monday, May 13, 2013

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

I had two thoughts as I left a matinee of The Great Gatsby yesterday afternoon. The first was that it may be impossible to make a truly great adaptation of the book. While I easily preferred Baz Luhrmann's movie to the 1974 version, it has a few of the same problems - an elusive heroine that is more of a symbol than a character, occasional difficulty translating plot incidents that are witnessed from a distance by our narrator into cinematic terms - that suggest that the greatness of Fitzgerald's book is so specific to its medium that even a director taking the formally literary approach of Two English Girls or The Royal Tenenbaums would still only approximate the novel's impact. The second is that, imperfect though they may be, I'd love to see several different directors' takes on the material - the aspects of the book that are suited for film are rich with possibilities, and could be interpreted any number of ways to fascinating effect. Luhrmann's interpretation is pretty much exactly what a Baz Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby - opulent, often gaudy, beautifully shot and boldly, proudly theatrical - and yet it understands Fitzgerald's book far more than I expected (or than the reviews suggested). It's sometimes exhilarating, sometimes maddening, always teetering on the edge of ridiculousness, and thoroughly entertaining.

As expected, Luhrmann treats narrator Nick Carraway's (Tobey Maguire) introduction to the nonstop party of Gatsby's world on Long Island with the same hyperactive style as Ewan McGregor's first visit to the Moulin Rouge (maybe just a notch less manic). The movie is great eye candy, bringing the empty surfaces of Fitzgerald's wild party to life with obvious glee as Luhrmann crowds the frame with flappers, jazz musicians and the many drunken recipients of Gatsby's hospitality. The movie really comes to life when Carraway finally meets the elusive Gatsby - DiCaprio is perfect in a very challenging role, balancing Gatz's charisma with his disarmingly naive longing for lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and the character's more elusive qualities. Gatsby is a self-created man who, when given the chance, escaped the life he was born into and chose to become someone else (I realized, watching the film, how much Don Draper has in common with Gatsby). It's a balancing act for any actor, and DiCaprio does a fine, subtle job, making the character appealing yet remote and reminding me, at times, of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (another work strongly influenced by Gatsby).

Mulligan is lovely as Daisy, perhaps as good as any actress could be, but it occurred to me this time that Daisy is, to some extent, an unplayable character. If I remember correctly, her motives for the choices she makes are mostly guessed at by Carraway in the novel; she remains distant, a symbol for the elusive American dream that even a man with Gatsby's will and determination can only grasp at (Gatsby serves as the perfect critique of John Galt thirty years before Atlas Shrugged was published). One of Luhrmann's smartest decisions was to play the romance between Gatsby and Daisy for the human drama, rather than the metaphor (the mistake that kills the painfully solemn Jack Clayton film). It's romance done with Luhrmann's typical bold strokes, and it's not entirely successful. But I was pleasantly surprised when the director actually toned down his bombastic visuals in the movie's second half, as the story turned to the destruction of Gatsby's hopes. The conventional reading is that the many bad things that happen by the story's end are a cynical comment on the essential emptiness of the excesses of Gatsby and his world; where Luhrmann departs, fascinatingly, is to treat this as a tragedy, a loss of innocence for Gatsby as well as his narrator. The movie celebrates Gatsby's essential optimism - it's done a little clumsily, and I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation, but it's a valid reading of the text that Luhrmann is able to support, and I honestly prefer a unique approach to the book that makes me raise an eyebrow to a reiteration of musty received wisdom.

It's this idea that there's a "correct" way to adapt Gatsby that has showed up in many of the scolding reviews by critics that have taken it upon themselves to defend the novel's honor. I suspect that Fitzgerald, whose work was bracingly modern in 1925, would chuckle at this; one of the earliest writers to really understand the ephemeral, shifting nature of popular culture, it seems likely that he would have gotten a kick out of a Gatsby film scored by Jay-Z (he probably would have been tickled by the very idea of hip hop). This is not to say that Luhrmann's approach is entirely successful, or that one is wrong to dislike it. The framing device of having Carraway telling the story as a novel he's writing while recovering from alcoholism in an institution, aside from the lovely effect of typewritten words literally floating across the screen, doesn't really work at all, and Tobey Maguire's performance - not bad, but not very interesting and punctuated by Maguire-isms - doesn't help (thankfully, the supporting cast is terrific, particularly Joel Edgerton as Tom and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker). And I wish Luhrmann had taken a little more time on the aftermath of the story, the wreckage of Gatsby's grandiose illusions (though, as the movie runs 140 minutes already, I can understand the impulse to wrap it up).

That said, I admire Luhrmann for always swinging for the fences. Usually, the result is either terrific (Moulin Rouge) or very bad (Australia), with very little room in between. While Gatsby, surprisingly, is at neither extreme, I imagine that, in the long run, it will prove more divisive; it's one of those movies that is bound to gain devoted fans to match its detractors. As for me, I'm thankful for the movie for one of DiCaprio's best performances, for the times I'll rewatch this on Blu-ray to savor the eye candy, and for all the high school kids who will have a better time than I did on the day that their teachers wheel in the TV set from the library.

Sidenote: Though I usually find 3D annoying and pointless, I was glad I took a chance on it here. This is the fourth movie, out of the maybe ten or so I've seen in the format, that was really enhanced by the process (the others being Avatar, Jurassic Park and, of course, Piranha).

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