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Luhrmann's 'Gatsby' proves quite satisfactory

 

 


   
By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut  

May 9, 2013

   
       

WAUKESHA - The most remarkable aspect of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” is the quality of its writing.

Memorable metaphors combine with indelible poetic passages. Symbols such as the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock and a billboard boasting oversized eyes and spectacles are among the most celebrated in American literature.

But how does one translate poetry and symbolism into cinema? In the case of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” quite satisfactorily.

Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet”) co-wrote the “Gatsby” screenplay, in addition to directing the film, and his script has acceptable facsimiles of most of the novel’s best lines. (A movie screenwriter, like a director, needs to affix his own stamp to an adaptation, after all.) About the only major book line obviously missing is the one in which Jay Gatsby compares Daisy’s voice to the clinking of coins. As for symbolism, the green light is shown repeatedly, as it should be, and the oculist’s billboard - positioned above yet another key symbol, the hellish Valley of Ashes - is seen sufficiently, as well.

“Gatsby” is the tale of a rich man’s quest to recapture lost love. That basic plot is as old as storytelling, but Fitzgerald’s book offers a hero with murky ethics and a heroine with a wedding ring. The story is laid in the 1920s, that intriguing era of Prohibition and organized crime, automobile and airplane emergence, postwar prosperity, liberalization and a burgeoning interest in sports.

Literary types hold that Fitzgerald’s masterpiece depicts the ‘20s incomparably; touching upon everything mentioned in the preceding sentence, Luhrmann’s movie makes an estimable attempt to follow suit (although the decadence and prodigality of its party scenes had rather numbed this viewer by film’s end).

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Gatsby. Like his cohorts who play narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), DiCaprio is a few years older than his character is supposed to be. DiCaprio’s Gatsby affects an Eastern accent (perhaps to disguise his agrarian North Dakota roots), which makes him sound at times like a poor man’s Bobby Kennedy.

Accent aside, DiCaprio successfully negotiates a gamut of emotions and pairs up credibly with actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. It is harder to like and empathize with this Gatsby, though, than it was with Robert Redford, who played the role with more restraint and warmth - and less naivete - in Jack Clayton’s 1974 movie.

Maguire’s physical resemblance to author Fitzgerald is probably purposeful, an interesting touch. Maguire is a good fit for Nick, although his moral reservation about facilitating a Gatsby-Daisy assignation and his sometime party animal persona just aren’t in keeping with Fitzgerald’s Carraway.

As Tom, Daisy’s husband and Nick’s Yale schoolmate, Australian actor Edgerton does a good deal of scowling and growling - appropriate, as it turns out, in painting the arrogant bully Fitzgerald took pains to create. Thanks to Edgerton, the viewer will fully understand Fitzgerald’s statement that “there were men at New Haven who had hated (Tom’s) guts.”

Mulligan, a British actress, is completely believable as an American. Watching her, one can almost forget Mia Farrow’s brilliant performance as Daisy two generations ago. The very attractive Mulligan, still in her 20s, is a more subdued, more schoolgirlish and ultimately more relatable Daisy. Come to think of it, maybe the line about Daisy’s voice and money would’ve spoiled all that.

Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Carraway’s love interest in the novel, is downplayed in Luhrmann’s film. A head or more taller than Nick, she’s little more to him than an acquaintance - and little more than window dressing to the production. Debicki certainly could’ve been given more to do. Her character is the subject of a laugh-evoking line in a script that understandably doesn’t have too many such lines. Jordan, says Nick, was “the most frightening person I’d ever seen, but I enjoyed looking at her.”

Luhrmann, whose wife, Catherine Martin, served “Gatsby” in her customary role as production designer, has given us a 3-D movie complete with jump cuts and subtitles, camera panning and zooming, balletic character movements and inventively incongruous music. The format may be cutting-edge, but the film is not difficult to follow - at least for a viewer who’s read the book.

“Gatsby,” however, well exceeds the two-hour mark. Shaving, say, 20 minutes of party footage would’ve only strengthened the overall product.

‘The Great Gatsby’

3 stars

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Running time: 143 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release date: Friday