Without question, director Baz Luhrmann is one of the more polemic filmmakers working today. While many praise his modern take on the Bard with his "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) and simply can't find enough positive things to say about his radical musical "Moulin Rouge" (2001), others are equally adamant that he's a stylistic hack who lets his elaborate visuals and seizure-inducing editing style suffocate his innovative narratives.
As one firmly in the latter category, I was filled with a sense of dread when he announced in 2011 that his next film would be an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" in 3D. The seminal American novel of the 20th century in the hands of an Australian filmmaker who favors excessive style over substance was a recipe for disaster in my mind, and the fact that the film was pushed back from its original Christmas 2012 release to the cusp of the 2013 summer movie season hardly allayed my fears.
And while the film does suffer from Luhrmann's overwrought aesthetic at times, it must be said that this version of "The Great Gatsby" works more often than not as the director wisely adheres closely to the original text, while his unique brand of visual pomp is a perfect match for the outsized fantasy world the main character builds around himself. To be sure, the film is flawed as there are times when the filmmaker is unable to contain himself, and his grandiose style suffocates the subtle tones of Fitzgerald's story, but there's no denying this is a distinctive, energetic take on the novel that ultimately is able to stand on its own.
For those of you who slept through your English teacher's lectures on the novel or didn't even bother to read the Cliffs Notes on it, a brief recap of the story is in order. The setting is Long Island during the Roaring '20s. Reluctant bond trader and would-be author Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved into a small cottage that's dwarfed by the ornate mansion built by elusive millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Though few have actually laid eyes on this mysterious figure, there's no shortage of rumors pertaining to his past, some of them noble in nature, others slanderous. However, over the course of the sweltering summer of 1922, Carraway meets Gatsby, becomes his friend and discovers a connection exists between the reclusive millionaire and his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (a vibrant Carey Mulligan) who lives across the sound from Gatsby's mansion with her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).
The film gets off to a shaky start as Luhrmann is unable to let a normal conversation ensue without cutting it together in staccato fashion. While this technique heightens the frenzy of the bacchanals that exemplify the film's decadent age, it still proves to be a distraction as does the modern soundtrack that clashes like plaid with polka dots. However, this subsides over time, and Luhrmann allows the story to play out with an admiral adherence to the text.
Surprisingly, Luhrmann's opulent aesthetic proves to be a good fit for the fantasy world that Gatsby conjures around himself. The director pulls out all the stops in rendering a larger than life, brighter than a rainbow environment the character basks and ultimately wilts in. Particularly vivid is our first look at him, in which he's seen against a clear, star-studded night sky, replete with fireworks exploding behind DiCaprio who at that moment is the epitome of charm and style. This is one of the defining moments of the film as it presents the character as he sees himself, the memory of which is rendered tragic after his fall.
Without question, Luhrmann and Craig Pearce who co-wrote the screenplay have a great respect for the novel as little tinkering is done with it, and what is added plays to the story's advantage. It's all told in flashback by Carraway, who has been institutionalized for alcoholism and depression and as a therapeutic exercise begins to write out Gatsby's story. While purists may scoff at this, it allows more of Fitzgerald's writing to be used in the film, serving as an anchor amid that flash and flurry that threatens to get away from Luhrmann throughout.
In the end, what sells the film is Luhrmann's enthusiasm and that of his cast. DiCaprio effectively taps into Gatsby's delusional and tragic nature, Mulligan brings vibrancy to Daisy that makes her desirable, Edgerton's edge gives Tom a much-needed sense of violence, while Maguire proves to be the major surprise, finding some interesting shadings in Carraway who heretofore has been a cipher.
Surely, this "Gatsby" is far from great and will not be to everyone's taste. However, it is a distinctive vision that deserves to be seen for all of its glorious faults and grand ambition.
'The Great Gatsby' (3 stars out of 4)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Steve Bisley, Max Cullen and Jack Thompson.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; produced by Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman, Catherine Martin, Douglas Wick and Luhrmann; screenplay by Craig Pearce and Luhrmann, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A Warner Brothers release. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Poetic "To the Wonder" beautiful vision of alienation. (3 stars)
Terrence Malick's films ("Tree of Life") often play out like deeply personal narrative visions. Eschewing traditional narrative forms, any sense of a story is often told in fragments, rarely expanded upon, left purposely vague and ambiguous for the viewer to piece together and interpret. One theme that recurs throughout each of his movies is man's relationship with nature, in which we are seen as ignorant interlopers, heedlessly befouling our environment to our peril.
His latest, "To the Wonder," adheres to this template to better effect than most of his films as, despite its meandering nature, it plays much tighter and is a bit clearer than his other films. What story there is concerns an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) who meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) a Ukrainian divorcee while vacationing in Paris. Swept away by emotion, she agrees to come to America with her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in tow. Their bliss is short-lived as Marina is overcome by a sense of debilitating alienation while Neil comes in contact with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) he may or may not have a future with.
This all plays out in fits and starts as Malick shows us how the relationship develops and frays with a series of gloriously rendered scenes that feature snow-laden Parisian parks where their love blooms as well as those of bland Oklahoma subdivisions where individuality and passion are crushed. Rarely has a sense of alienation been so palpably captured on screen as our impersonal way of life is seen through Marina's eyes as she struggles to make a connection with the world around her and those who live in it, failing at every turn. Kurylenko does a fine job showing Marina's spirit slowly draining away.
She's not alone in this as Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is also a stranger in a strange land, unable to connect with his congregation, expressing doubts about his purpose and faith. Malick is notorious for shooting footage and then abandoning it, often throwing away entire storylines and characters (that was the case here as well with entire subplots featuring characters played by Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen and Amanda Peet thrown to the wayside), and I suspect this storyline was a casualty of this practice. Maddeningly few moments are given to the character, and when the film shifts back to his plight, it seems like an afterthought as this plot thread is ultimately rendered inconsequential.
Malick fans will no doubt enjoy the film, and this would be a good starting point for those who have been curious about his work but have been unwilling to take the plunge. All of "To the Wonder's" gifts will not be gleaned in a single viewing, which is an admirable quality of any artist's work. You'll find yourself turning the movie over and over in your mind afterward, making connections that weren't initially apparent as it gives up deeper shadings and meaningful connections long after Malick's final image fades to black.