Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great Gatsby, A Movie Review

So Baz Luhrman bit at the biggest, gaudiest, showiest piece of literature out there, and managed to out-Moulin Rouge his own Moulin Rouge. This version of Gatsby is shinier, louder, brighter and more gaudy than you might have thought possible. As a movie it both slavishly adheres to the novel while simultaneously betraying everything the book stands for. It's a hot mess and I kind of loved it.

This is notable, because I hate everything.

I won't rehearse the plot, because you should know it by now.

The movie doesn't try to recreate the 1920s in any faithful way, but evokes our dreams about it. As such, it kind of falls midway between two other historical film pastiches: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina  (which I feel didn't quite cohere in any meaningful way), and Sofia Coppela's Marie Antoinette (which I do love). Luhrmann's Gatsby  isn't quite as successful as Coppela's Marie Antoinette,  but it is doing some of the same things stylistically while also working with a famously difficult text.

I would totally go see this again, and expect that any time it turns up on television I will be sucked into it for at least the first 2/3s. The last third, as the snares close around Gatsby, are well done, but nothing special. The visual flair of the first part of the movie dissipates as the machinery of the plot has to take precedence. But until then, it is gorgeous to look at.

I saw this in 3D, and the forced perspective gives the whole a faint feeling as though it's all being enacted on a model train set--not quite realistic, with odd details emphasized, making the whole more dream-like and odd, which seems appropriate as Carraway tries to explain to himself just what happened and why he is still haunted by that summer.

Let us address the framing device. The movie opens in 1927, winter at a sanitarium, where Carraway is being treated for a list of ailments, including "morbid alcoholism." He begins to tell the attending doctor about that summer of 1922, and finds he can't talk about it. "Then write it" the doctor says, launching Carraway into creating a typescript that he calls "The Great Gatsby." It's a little bit hokey, of course, and the rich and homey interior doesn't really seem anything like what a sanitorium would have been, even back in the early 20th century. Critics have near universally hated it, but I don't. I think it gives the movie the chance to honestly invoke the elegiac nostalgia of Fitzgerald's novel, that fragile and sensitive mix of longing and revulsion that makes the novel work. Because, face it, stripped of the delicacy of language, that ambivalence of narration, the story is lurid melodrama and trashy spectacle. Using the framing device, Luhrmann is able to use descriptive passages from the book, language that would otherwise be risible if delivered as dialogue. He is able to describe things he would never have seen, like Gatsby and Daisy's first kiss, back in Alabama, when Gatsby paused on the edge of falling in love, knowing that if he fell for this girl, "his mind would never again romp like God's." (Or something like that.) I allow that, because this is not a report, this is a story Carraway is telling himself, as he tries to make sense of something that touched his emotions and that his logic can't entirely understand.

The movie owes an enormous and unacknowledged (so far as I have seen) debt to Citizen Kane. Leonardo DiCaprio even looks like Orson Welles, as if they are long separated siblings.

Honestly, I can't be the only one who sees the resemblance.

Both movies are reconstructions of the protagonists' lives after their death. And Gatsby dies whispering "Daisy" just as Kane says "Rosebud." I'm sure there's more, but that's enough for now.

The first two thirds of the movie are visually overwhelming, a design aesthetic that can only be described as "More is Not Enough." It's frenzied, it's ridiculous, and while it might technically fit the descriptions of the book, it kind of misses the point. Because Luhrmann so patently adores filming the excess, he kind of misses the fact that the excess is tawdry and misguided. Gatsby throws these enormous parties hoping that Daisy will hear about them and wander in, never recognizing that these are precisely the kinds of things that are too common, too nouveau riche for Daisy to actually come to voluntarily. Furthermore, they are the kind of bacchanals that Tom will prevent her from attending, even if he himself is willing to go--alone.

Luhrmann's film doesn't really seem to grasp the ways in which Gatsby is performing his own dream of what wealth looks like. Like Gatsby, Luhrmann seems to believe that Daisy would find this sort of thing exciting and appropriate. So the movie indulges in that excess, exactly as Gatsby does, and misses the edge of disapproval that permeates the novel.

To be fair, at first, Nick is also excited and charmed by this world, even if he ultimately rejects it. He starts out with that very American belief that the rich are somehow better than everybody else, that their money is proof of some sort of divine merit--like titles in Europe, the rich are the elect and to be accepted by them is to prove to yourself that you too are finer than the average man. Over the course of the summer, he learns that the rich are no better than the rest of us, and are in some ways infinitely worse. Jordan Baker cheats at golf (a detail left out of the movie), Tom cheats on his wife, Daisy can hit a woman with her car and retreat into her money and leave the mess to others to clean up. Wealth is not proof of worth.

I keep recalling Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country as I watched this film. In that novel, the unutterably lovely and grossly common Undine Spragg erupts onto the New York social scene. She has gotten it into her head that she wants to sit atop the social hierarchy, and so she marries a man who is utterly inappropriate for her. Because there are two, parallel New York societies--the old Knickerbockers who have old money and don't spend it. Theirs is a live of inherited furniture and dining at home, good works and stolid values. Undine doesn't understand this world and doesn't like it. She craves the fast cars and flashy nightlife of the new demimonde, and is much happier when she is sneaking away from her husband to party.

Gatsby has some of the same DNA (the character, the novel and the movie). Daisy is a girl in an expensive white dress, lounging on a sofa as the breeze moves the gauzy curtains--not the flapper guzzling illegal alcohol while dancing the Charleston at a crowded party full of strangers. Gatsby doesn't really know who she is, in fact, he doesn't see her at all as a person, rather she is just the trophy that would seal his success in life. Charlie Sheen is not the first to mistake frantic activity for "winning."

And what about Daisy? Carey Mulligan is delightful (always) and fun to watch, but there really isn't very much there there with Daisy. Personally, I blame Fitzgerald. I don't think he ever understood Zelda either, and Fitzgerald's Daisy is kind of like Gatsby's Daisy--a symbol rather than a full person. Mulligan is winsome, and has some backbone--especially when she refuses to do what Gatsby wants and tell Tom that she never loved him. She is unhappy, but isn't willing to be Jay's puppet. Her decision to stay with tome is communicated as fear. She's killed a woman, she's afraid of what she's done, and Tom opportunistically uses that fear as a tool to keep her with him. It's a devil's bargain she is making, one she accepts from a position of weakness and social pressure. She knows better, but she's too frail to stand independently--she's never been allowed to before, why should we think she could now?

It's a gorgeous movie, full of fabulous set pieces and over the top visuals. The first full image of Gatsby is typical of the movie. It's Leo DiCaprio looking as beautiful as he has in years (apparently beauty is inconsistent with being a Serious Actor), toasting us as fireworks frame his golden head and the strains of Rhapsody in Blue swell. It's ridiculous, it's campy, it's too over the top, and that's why it works.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Good review Cate. The novel will probably forever, and always will be considered unfilmable, no matter how hard this movie tries to make it work.