May 11, 2013
No question whatsoever, director Baz Luhrmann is someone who elicits strong opinions with his every movie. Moulin Rouge draws forth a swoony sigh from its biggest fans and an eye roll from its detractors. In an industry that often plays it safe, creating movies like Fast and Furious 6 to keep the easy money flowing, it is always refreshing that someone is taking chances, and certainly Luhrmann has built his career subscribing to the “go big or go home” school of filmmaking.
His new film The Great Gatsby is no exception. Not only does he create the sort of visually over-saturated and extravagant fantasy he is known for, he does it with the cherished American classic novel written in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has already been brought to film numerous times.
So, will this risk pay off? Movie fans must be curious because Cinema Siren has had more people asking about Gatsby than anything released in the last six months. Unfortunately, it seems a fair number of critics walked into the screenings with their minds already made up. “Too loud, too shallow, too over the top,” they say. Cinema Siren says “phooey to that!”
A tragic undercurrent
The Great Gatsby is a gorgeously filmed, exquisitely designed, bombastic ode to excess, with a melancholy undertone that leaves you confused and a bit sad, but sated and satisfied. In that way it succeeds in expressing Fitzgerald’s conflicted feelings about the crowd he himself ran with in the gin-soaked high society of 1920s New York.
In this new Gatsby, even during the most lavish party scenes, there is a tragic undercurrent, as if everyone from the maids to the performers to the bejeweled socialites are all temporarily trying to forget something awful they know will still be there in the morning. It all seems so beautiful, but the fun is forced and manic.
That manic attempt to find a bit of joy is most articulated by Cary Mulligan’s competent performance as Daisy Buchanan, the fragile flower and object of romantic obsession who collects admirers like fancy frocks she drops in a pile by her bed. Mulligan nails Daisy’s mix of ennui and dwindling optimism, but seems to lack the inner spark that would explain why men fall so hopelessly for her. Perhaps that was an acting choice.
The ultra rich 1 percent?
She looks so lovely, lit as she is, the filmmakers make her fairly glow. Her costumes are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. She has several little silk numbers that are all a-sparkle with crystal beads, giving the impression the Buchanans are spending more on one dress than most middle-class folk make with a month’s wages.
Luhrmann is no stranger to political statements about haves and have nots in his movies. This brings us to my first reservation going into the screening. Many have heard the music is not the appropriate jazz of the age, but rather a mix of today’s music, including dance, hip hop and other cacophonous pop. The choice was a brilliant way of connecting the careless conspicuous consumers of the early 20th century with today’s society.
Luhrmann is making an obvious but arguably accurate statement that with the widening gap between the ultra rich 1 percent and the ever-increasing number of people living in poverty, we are living out the doom of repeated history. Costumes aside, the party scenes could be the rave that happened last night around any corner in the meat-packing district.
Costume designer and production designer
The aforementioned costumes are courtesy of colossally talented Catherine Martin, wife and partner of the director. What a partnership it is, as she has won Oscars in both costuming and art direction for Moulin Rouge and has been nominated for Romeo + Juliet and Australia. Baz Luhrmann’s movies would not have the consistent design aesthetic they are known for without her.
Beyond being his muse, she is the single best and most essential member of his filmmaking team. She is costume designer and production designer for The Great Gatsby, and one person being both on the same film is not that common. The color palette for Daisy is limited to peaches and off-whites, while those for the more déclassé Myrtle (Isla Fisher vibrates as the deliciously trampy sexpot) and her posse of “fun loving” trashy gal pals are a clash-tastic melange of bright reds, greens, yellows and many other garish colors thrown together and complimented with emerald eyeshadows or half inch-long false lashes.
There is one scene of debauchery with her and other members of the cast that is reason enough to see the film. Her hideaway, where they spend an evening doing god knows what-all, is so flamboyantly appointed, it is as if Colette and Oscar Wilde had gone into interior design together.
An ever-present sadness
As to the acting, anyone who has read the novel should know these characters are not meant to be liked. Every character is fatally flawed. It is the nature of the novel, and Luhrmann doesn’t shy away from staying true to that. Baz hit the jackpot having Leonardo DiCaprio sign on to play Jay Gatsby. He too is someone movie fans love or hate, but no one can say Leo can’t act. His Gatsby is beyond acting.
He inhabits him completely. From his first smile, he is dazzlingly winning. He makes the desire of protagonist and narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) to live under the considerable spread of his personal sunshine real and believable. He has his reasons for his grandiosity and studied charm. Beneath it lies a sadness that is ever-present and readable in his every nuanced expression. DiCaprio incorporates a conflicted quality into his portrayal so well it makes you unknowingly squirm in your seat.
As to Tobey Maguire, his casting could have been problematic, and was my second concern. Reservations stemmed from him seeming altogether too young and fresh-faced to pull off the character’s arc. I needn’t have worried. By the end of the story, Maguire made Carraway completely his own, and carries us with him every step on his long emotional journey. Good for you, Tobey.
Look for great supporting work by Jason Clarke as the ruined working class workhorse George Wilson, Joel Edgerton as the swarthy cash cad Tom Buchanan, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as mysterious Jordan Baker, whom Luhrmann discovered for this film.
Love it or hate it, but see it
I didn’t expect to have to make a case for my audience to commit to seeing the film. The bad reviews from a mix of the jaded literati who stumbled into movie criticism having yet to finish their own Great American Novel, and a few genuine movie-loving writers who can (however misguidedly) concretely back up the reasons for their hate, left me no choice but to stand in Baz’s corner, declare its worthiness for viewing, and fight for your right as film fans to decide for yourselves.
The director took a classic story and fearlessly made the film his own. It is every bit the flamboyant train wreck he believed it should be. Does his unique vision add something that over time will become a cult classic and sparkle like one of Daisy’s dresses? To hazard an opinion, you’ll have to see it. Love it or hate it, but see it.