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One might reckon the reunion of director Baz Luhrmann and star Leonardo DiCaprio seventeen years after their collaboration on William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet shot both of them into the international stratosphere, would be a momentous occasion. Not ones to hedge their bets, they’ve come together for Luhrmann’s audacious take on what many consider the greatest American novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The party’s long been over and Nick Carraway is still experiencing the hangover.  Whilst undergoing treatment, Carraway’s psychiatrist suggests Nick put pen to paper to express those moments and figures that loom so large in his mind.  Nick recalls his first overwhelming thoughts on moving to New York City and burrowing away in a tiny cabin on Long Island as his own writer’s retreat.  This early playground for New York’s wealthiest includes Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan, who lives across the bay in a gigantic mansion with her philandering husband.  There is also the mysterious next door neighbour, whose outrageous, decadent parties turn out half of New York City; none of whom seem too bothered that they’ve never laid eyes on their generous host.  Nick receives an invitation to one of these weekly, over-the-top bacchanals and is introduced to the surprisingly youthful, charming man with all the disposable income.  It turns out Jay Gatsby isn’t exactly a stranger and the entire point of the extravagant walk-in shindigs and his very choice of location was to be nearer to Daisy.  Having Nick in the picture facilitates Gatsby’s ultimate goal of winning back the woman he loved and lost whilst seeking his fortune.  Aided by the fascinated Nick, the single-minded determination that brought Gatsby his boundless wealth might not be enough to persuade Daisy to free herself from the gilded cage the security of marriage - however distasteful - to old money has assured her.

From the looming, golden art deco titles that initially draw us into the story, one knows that the boundlessly aesthetic eye of Baz Luhrmann will make this a gorgeous ride.  Luhrmann brought the saturated neon of Miami to his Romeo + Juliet and the lush velvets and frills of the Belle Epoque for Moulin Rouge.  Heck, he even turned Hugh Jackman into a natural landscape in Australia.  As expected, The Great Gatsby is a feast for the eyes; the art deco, shining monochromes, smartly cut suits and flapper fashion are a perfect palette for Luhrmann, who goes camera sweep crazy with his first 3D feature.  One might also predict he’d make the most of the wild dances and musical background of the period.  However, similar to Moulin Rouge, instead of opting for the music of the era, the soundtrack comes courtesy of executive producer Jay-Z, Mrs. Carter, Will.I.Am and other contemporaries (Including old-timey renditions of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love {by Emeli Sandé} and Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug by Bryan Ferry himself) to give us a modern comparison to the savage, thumping jazz that made the Twenties roar.  Another contrast is the complete aimlessness of the flappers and well-to do in this piece that seems to reflect today’s generation of yuppies and hipsters in their heedless, almost desperate search for more thrills, deeper debauchery and higher highs.  Sadly, it’s the only note of resonance in the film, because the themes and morals in F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s original story fall to second place behind the insistent visuals and Luhrmann’s native quirkiness.  The inexorable dimming of the Lost Generation’s Flaming Youth is narrowed down solely to the love story of Daisy and Gatsby, turning it into a rather ordinary tale of a girl attracted to a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.  There is potential for so much more that simply bubbles up then fades away.  Through his own actions and the lack of gravity with which he’s written, our literal and sometimes awkward narrator, Nick, is a sieve.  His relationship with Gatsby, who never truly confides in him and who he really knows nothing about, feels rather flimsy.  It’s less a friendship and more like the blind adoration of a fanboy, and so Nick’s display of devotion at the film’s end seems overwrought.  The casting of Nick and Gatsby is interesting in that Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio famously spent much of their early adulthood as running buddies, carousing in clubs across both coasts with DiCaprio the more famous and sought after; very like the difference in regard between Gatsby and Nick.  Nick is content to trail in Gatsby’s wake; starstruck by all the ostentatious glamour, influential connections and bottomless spending.  He purposely doesn’t ask too many questions and is only too happy to be of service when Gatsby clumsily recruits Nick’s assistance in wooing his unhappily married cousin.  As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio shimmers like all the chrome, lacquer and gold leaf around him; affable and strangely distant.  His performance veers sometimes too near to Gatsby being less of an eccentric than mentally irregular with an oddness that is never addressed.  Carey Mulligan makes a wan if not entirely fragile flower as Mrs. Buchanan and her naturally sad eyes perfectly convey Daisy’s existential turmoil once Gatsby reenters her life.  Joel Edgerton as the buffoonish, cheating Tom Buchanan represents the class war at its worst, seething with barely-controlled contempt for the nouveau riche upstart from nowhere that now threatens his happy home, and seems astounded at the idea that Daisy’s happiness matters.  Isla Fisher as Buchanan’s low-rent mistress is decked out in the image of the ultimate flapper, Clara Bow, with flaming red curls, scarlet kewpie-doll lips and a honking accent straight out of a Bowery Boys comedy.  Stunning in draped black beaded gowns as fellow Gatsby enabler, Jordan Baker, Elizabeth Debicki’s impressive features resemble an art deco statue and is fascinating to look at, but like most of the strong aspects of the film, gets washed away in Daisy and Gatsby’s wake.  An almost campy amount of star power is injected by Indian icon Amitabh Bachchan’s tiny role as a shady racketeer pal of Gatsby’s, and a too-small measure of gravitas comes courtesy of Jason Clarke as the blue-collar mechanic cuckolded and flummoxed by Tom Buchanan.

Where Luhrmann does go right in his film - besides his impeccable production values - is working up a romance so fevered, it rivals the swept-up passions of Romeo + Juliet.  Even if we’re not entirely sure of Daisy and Gatsby’s future, Luhrmann’s reunion of the two lovers is a whirlwind of materialism and the dizzying wealth that Gatsby fought so hard to provide for his love.

The glamour and shallowness of the period is almost too well reflected in the lightweight narrative of this adaptation.  The audience won’t come away knowing much or caring overly about these characters.  It’s lightweight as a Twinkie, yet equally delicious.  Baz Luhrmann’s vision of the Roaring Twenties is dazzling as a purely sensory piece of sight and sound.  So many right ingredients for such a hollow result doesn’t stop The Great Gatsby from entertaining and being worth viewing on the big screen as a gorgeous, glittering work of visual art.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 10th 2013

 

 

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Photos

(Stills Courtesy of  Warner Brothers)

 

 

 

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