June 9, 2013

In Xanadu, in 3-D

Whether you’re a fan of the book or have never read it, you would have to agree that the framing device in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) – narrator Nick Carraway is drying out in a sanatorium, telling his story to a doctor and then writing it up – is a bad idea. Not only because “the story I’ve been telling is also a book I’ve been writing” is an ancient cliché but because it depends so heavily on Tobey Maguire, woefully miscast as Carraway. But as I wrote back at Werewolf, Carraway is probably the hardest Gatsby character to cast: readers depend on his perspectives, his judgments, and he remains in important ways, an outsider, a bystander, as well as (an unreliable) conscience and narrator. At times in this Gatsby, he is also an over-explainer: his voice-over in the “shirts” scene interrupts the Gatsby/Daisy dialogue to explain why she is crying (and it’s a generous interpretation …). But I think that Luhrmann gets other key parts about right: Leonardo DiCaprio is a charismatic, proud, sad and (importantly) comic Gatsby, Joel Edgerton is an overbearing and entitled thug as Tom Buchanan (Lurhmann and co-writer Craig Pearce kept the racism which had at least one unprepared audience member gasping) and Carey Mulligan is … well, you can never perfectly cast Daisy because everyone has their own idea, or ideal. She is different things to Gatsby and to us – even the notion that her voice sounds like money means different things to Gatsby and to us, or at least it should.

It may not sound like an achievement, but this would be the best Luhrmann film since Romeo + Juliet, not just because of the strength of those central performances, but because an established text keeps Luhrmann relatively grounded as well as gifting him and Pearce great dialogue. Nothing Luhrmann does here – and he does a lot – can undermine a straight-forward and contained story that should never have gained a reputation for being unfilmable, although it is true that the book’s visual metaphors (the Eckleburg billboard, the valley of ashes, the green light) can seem clumsy in a film. Overall, the familiar Luhrmann-isms – the excessive artificiality, the anachronisms, the choreography, the half-hallucinated sets – work this time, with the film taking place both in its own era and ours, in an imaginary 1922 and in 2013 at the same time. How else to explain the quotes from movies made since, with DiCaprio’s Gatsby not just resembling Charles Foster Kane in appearance but ending his life gasping “Daisy” like Kane dropping the snow globe, as well as a quote or two from Sunset Boulevard? Better a version this imaginative and individual – and as willing to take liberties – than the play-like dullness of the Jack Clayton version.