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Arms Outstretched Too Far: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

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Arms Outstretched Too Far: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

If there’s a single scene that speaks volumes in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it’s the one that unfolds just before Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally reunites with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) at the home of Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the prep for this reunion, which has been five years coming, is as modest as Nick’s digs, with Gatsby, the man next door with the castle-like manse, simply insisting that Nick cut his unkempt grass. In Luhrmann’s incarnation, Gatsby pulls out all the stops, not just having his neighbor’s lawn mowed, but planting gardens, installing fountains, and packing Nick’s parlor with so many flowers and pastries there’s barely room to sit down. On a comedic level, the scene works beautifully, reflecting the lovestruck unease that’s as outsized as everything else in Gatsby’s life, and it’s followed by a wistful glance between Daisy and Gatsby that hits you just as it should—like a firm, shocking punch of yearning and rehashed memories. But it’s also plainly indicative of Luhrmann’s bombastic technique, which involves taking Gatsby’s famed grandiloquence and spinning it into a stylistic hurricane. Surely everyone knew that Luhrmann would go all carnivalesque in playing up Fitzgerald’s decadent party scenes, but not even those glitzy trailers can prepare you for just how loud and large this vision is—a frantic spectacle that tosses off restraint as heedlessly as Gatsby hurls his shirts over a balcony at Daisy, showering her with an expensive cascade of pastels.

Luhrmann reportedly went on record saying he wanted to make his Gatsby “enormous,” but the trouble is he only amplifies the superficial enormity of a work whose true vastness is thematic. Wielded by Simon Duggan, Luhrmann’s camera is almost psychotically busy, especially at the start, hardly ever taking a pause between dizzying zooms, aerial views, uncomfortable angles, and violent careens down CG streets. All of this is edited with crack-addict zeal, and while we’re on the topic of drugs, it should be noted that the palette suggests a piňata as seen on hallucinogens. The latter isn’t necessarily a problem, and the great sea of color is certainly dazzling to the eye (Gatsby’s bashes, rife with streamers and fireworks, are unforgettable and immune to the otherwise needless glut), but it’s also another part of Luhrmann’s oppressive theatricality, which can often be as condescending as it is garish. In visualizing such lines as Nick’s simultaneous enchantment and repulsion by the “inexhaustible variety of life,” the Australian maestro shows an apartment building’s facade with every tenant’s window floating forward, their “inexhaustible variety” engaging the 3D format as Nick’s head hovers among them, superimposed, like something out of Scottie Ferguson’s nightmares in Vertigo. The moment is, in a word, preposterous, but it’s not as grating as, say, key segments that Luhrmann rushes through with the aid of his formal whirlwind, like an early dinner scene whose dialogue overlaps and whose visuals are clipped with forceful fades, or a pivotal car ride that hears Gatsby spill some of his ambiguous background, but forbids you from internalizing it due to so much tireless movement. Such is proof that Luhrmann’s adaptation (the novel’s fifth) is presumptuously made for those with short attention spans, not to mention inference deficiencies (in the film, the iconic eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are repeatedly labeled as the eyes of God, something Fitzgerald never needed to spell out).

There may well be some intentional irony in Luhrmann’s choice to accentuate the flashier aspects of the story, and some melancholic honesty beneath the inescapable marketing that touts this film as the party of the year. And one should surely hope there’s intended irony in the fact that one of the executive producers is Jay-Z—a living emblem of the American Dream (with songs about “concrete jungles where dreams are made of,” and where “there’s nothing you can’t do”) backing a film about the futility of it. But just as Luhrmann can’t do old-time homage the way he can do pop-culture collage (something the arduous Australia certainly proved), his possible deeper intentions are undermined by his dwindling taste level, which has never been more evident than in Gatsby, his most commercial effort yet. It may just be a winking “thank you” to his mega-mogul collaborator, but the inclusion of Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo” in a scene on the Queensboro Bridge is unforgivably tacky, and the fury with which it yanks you from the moment is a shock to the system. And that’s a pity, because the rest of the film’s soundtrack (barring Craig Armstrong’s absurdly ominous score) is extraordinarily integrated into the movie’s scenes, with everything from Jay-Z’s “$100 Bill” to Florence and the Machine’s “Over the Love”—all of which were produced exclusively for the film by Jay-Z and Luhrmann—pointing to what this classic-meets-contemporary mash-up could have been. Lana Del Rey’s rapturous “Young and Beautiful,” in particular, becomes an aural motif that’s repeated and reappropriated in various fashions, not just as a love theme, but as a requiem undercutting the drama at hand, lamenting all that’s fleeting and unable to be recaptured.

When The Great Gatsby actually stops to breathe, there is some greatness to be found, however brief it may be. Give or take Maguire, who’s an obvious choice for the wide-eyed Carraway, but often too earnest and boyish to tolerate, the film is supremely well-cast. Capturing all the delusion, hope, and pain of a character so rich with mythology, DiCaprio makes you believe that no one else could have tackled his role, and Mulligan, with her white-blonde bob and tiny mouth that tilts, ever-so-innocently, to one side, is transcendent, seeming to intimately know the innards of her character from the moment she’s first introduced, in that famous round room of windswept, angelic white curtains. Her anguish and girlish joy both register exquisitely, and even though the star-crossed romance with Gatsby lacks weight, there’s nothing off-point about Mulligan’s performance. If there’s such a thing as being effortlessly forceful, then Joel Edgerton achieves it as Daisy’s brutish husband Tom, Gatsby’s skeptical, hypocritical rival who plays polo when he’s not out bedding a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fisher). And then there’s the grand, chic, and altogether riveting Elizabeth Debicki, who, as Nick’s would-be lover Jordan Baker, may look like she’s doing her best imitation of Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (right down to the accent and the golfing), but is in fact making a splendid breakthrough as a soon-to-be-star. When finally given the chance to simply act, such as during a game-changing, bean-spilling scene in the Plaza Hotel, these players greatly reward the audience, enlivening largely unadorned moments with only their talents and the rich, timeless material.

Graciously and appropriately, Luhrmann eventually lets his gung-ho predilections simmer down, just as Gatsby’s own empire of impossible dreams starts to crumble. It’s the keenest stylistic choice the director makes, but it’s far from enough to remedy all the overcooked hyperactivity, which never fully takes a back seat. Since Fitzgerald’s Gatsby prose is so specific, and so indispensably poetic, adaptations of it essentially require Nick Carraway’s narration, if only to give the viewer that full, vicarious sensation of being “within” and “without.” But the handling of this by Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce feels a bit like a bastardization, in ways that go beyond a purist’s dissatisfaction with changes to the text. Among the liberties taken by the filmmakers is a framing device that places Nick in a mental institution, reciting his experiences with Gatsby to a benevolent shrink. “Why don’t you write it all down?” the doc says to Nick, an aspiring writer before he got wrapped up in the bond-trading game. Thus begins the clichéd flashback routine, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for another—and, by far, the worst—Luhrmannian flourish. As if to aggrandize the physical greatness of Fitzgerald’s printed words, Luhrmann opts to scrawl Nick’s recollections across the screen, sometimes in script, sometimes in typeface, sometimes in the floral patterns of partygoers’ dresses, and always in a manner that’s achingly gaudy. The whole writing element, of course, works to position Nick as a Fitzgerald stand-in, eventually shaping his collective memories into the hallowed book itself. Nick was Fitzgerald’s creation, and he undoubtedly contains much of the author within him, but there’s still something vulgar about this decision—the faint feeling that Fitzgerald has been cut from the picture entirely. Worst of all is that Luhrmann’s film doesn’t seem to grasp the heft of the words it so flagrantly brandishes, no matter how far the filmmaker stretches out his overeager arms. If only the current could have borne him back a bit, keeping even half of his brash sensibilities at bay.