A Little Party Never Killed Nobody

6 June 2013

Ozzie ringmaster Baz Lurhmann’s bombastic film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explodes off the screen – trashing the novel’s melancholy and subtlety in the process. It’s a gorgeous, glorious failure.

Well, I wanted to love it.

In talking about why I tried and failed to love Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby, I feel the need to go on record as saying I have no problems with cinematic adaptations of great novels. With literary adaptations, I’m interested less in how faithful the film is the the source novel, and more what the adaptors have chosen to focus on. Three of my favourite films-of-novels – Sally Potter’s Orlando, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, took major liberties with the source material, and created something wonderful with each one, finding ways to explore the themes of the work in a convincing cinematic language, even if the words on the page got changed or thrown away.

Gatsby is an unusually risky book to adapt, given the novel’s totemic significance in American culture, as the definitive work about the Jazz Age and the soullessness of the American Dream. Any director taking it on, especially since the maudlin 1970s version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, needs to have balls of steel. So who better to do it than Baz Luhrmann, the flamboyant Australian director with the silver Miranda Priestley hairdo, whose films are a joyous celebration of Old Hollywood and grand romance? After making a splash with kitsch love story Simply Ballroom, Luhrmann directed one of the boldest and most successful retellings of Shakespeare of modern times – Romeo & Juliet, relocated to Venice Beach and the ganglands of Mexico, with Mercutio as a singing drag queen. He followed it up with the magificently bonkers Moulin Rouge!, in which Ewan McGregor rapturously sang I Will Always Love You to Nicole Kidman in a very anachronistic looking 19th century Paris.

Sometimes a mash-up is just what a literary adaptation needs to be able to breathe new life into a novel, especially one with the prestige of Gatsby. With Luhrmann, we were promised a strong unapologetic point of view from a man who (mostly) understands how cinema works, and who would happily play fast and loose with the text in the service of greatness. It seemed like a match made in heaven.

Gatsby‘s critical reception has been mixed, but it’s done brilliantly at the box office, as well it should – it deserves to be seen, regardless of its many flaws. But for me, it was the OK or Middling-to-Fair Gatsby rather than truly Great. Expensively and exhaustively filmed, it’s big, bold, often beautiful, and believes in what it’s doing – but it still didn’t quite get me to the point of melancholy rapture that it strives so breathlessly to achieve.

What struck me about Gatsby wasn’t its radicalism but its anxious adherence to the original. Clearly a lover of the book, Luhrmann and his regular co-screenwriter Craig Pearce cleave closely to the story, apart from a couple of striking omissions in the final act (more on them later). Voiceover is used extensively, most of it lifted straight from Fitzgerald’s text. In a trick inherited from Romeo & Juliet, they even put quotes from the text on the screen in blown-up American Typewriter font. It’s meant, I’m sure, to show their reverence for the beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose, but it ends up looking like an undergraduate highlighting The Important Bits in their study edition.

Amid all the solemnity and cap-doffing, Luhrmann and his team of merry pranksters crank up the Ziegfeld Follies-meets-Sydney-Mardi-Gras excess we’ve seen in all his other films. There are massive parties, rivers of champagne, foot long antique cars, diamonds as big as the Ritz, beaded Miu Miu flapper dresses, tiers of pastel-coloured cakes, Versailles-style water fountains, Disney castle sets, a hip hop soundtrack. Beautifully art directed moral depravity, is, after all, Luhrmann’s trademark. Still, it’s rather disappointing to to see that his aesthetic and direction hasn’t moved on since the mid-1990s – it’s now a brand of flouro-coloured housepaint Luhrman and his art direction team applies to yet another story of thwarted love.

Unfortunately for Luhrmann, Gatsby is a story that can’t quite carry the weight of his bombastic ambitions and the 100 million tonnes of glitter that he rains down on the set. Like The Hobbit, another story overblown by an Australasian film director this year into a lumbering, bloated behemothGatsby‘s slim, wistful narrative about a fragile love triangle suffers through expansion and elongation. Fitzgerald’s wonderful and well-researched descriptions of parties certainly give Luhrmann something to work with, and it’s plausible that the party at slutty Myrtle’s apartment in New York might just have turned into an orgy, as Luhrmann gleefully portrays it. But when Luhrmann eventually realises, 14 hours into proceedings, that he has to turn off the glitter machine and actually tell the love story as Fitzgerald wrote it, the limitations of his approach start to show.

In the novel, the love story between Gatsby, his former love Daisy and Daisy’s bullish WASP husband boils up into crisis point at a suite in a Manhattan hotel. As written by Fitzgerald, it’s a scene of desperate repression, passive aggressive undercurrents and bad air-conditioning. It’s all too much – or not enough – for Luhrmann the circus ringmaster, who loves big melodramatic emotions, and doesn’t have much time for subtlety, subtext or understatement. (As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw bitchily but accurately observed in his review, Luhrmann is “a man who can’t see a nuance without calling security for it to be thrown off his set”). And so the hotel scene becomes a frenetic, choppily edited action sequence filled with yelling and smashed furniture, with performances turned up to an emotional Richter Scale of 11. Somehow it works dramatically – Luhrmann and his hardworking cast are nothing if not emotionally sincere – but it’s a world away from Fitzgerald.

Luhrmann would’ve have been perfectly at home directing the lurid melodramas of the silent age, like his spiritual predecessor Josef von Sternberg. As it is, his “more is more” approach is mostly deadly for Gatsby, especially for the performances. In her otherwise encouraging review, Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek says the actors “look lost in Luhrmann’s extravagant panorama”, delivering their lines “with care and respect, like birds entrusted with very special eggs. You sometimes get the feeling they’re afraid to sully them with anything so presumptuous as interpretation.”

Of all the performances, DiCaprio fares the best. He’s got sufficient star power and mega-wattage charisma to withstand Luhrmann’s set design and not be engulfed by it, and is, as he’s always been, a natural in front of the camera. Luhrmann’s introductory shot of DiCaprio is pure Hollywood Porn – back lighting, fireworks, Gershwin’s An American In Paris playing in the background, and DiCaprio’s million dollar smile. It reminded me of a similar shot of the then-gorgeously beautiful Jude Law as Bosie in Oscar, Brian Gilbert’s otherwise dull 1997 film about Oscar Wilde. DiCaprio seems sufficiently relaxed to bring subtle shadings and humour to his role, and even manages some slapstick physical comedy in his reunion scene with Daisy.

The others don’t quite fare so well. Carey Mulligan as Daisy simpers and sighs beautifully, and looks fantastic in an array of slinky 1920s outfits and killer headbands. Sadly, she’s stuck with a dog of a role that Luhrmann hasn’t bothered to expand, and so is left with little to do except raise her huge cow eyes to the screen and look mournful and slightly hungry. It’s a sweet performance (if you find hopeless female passivity to your taste), but it feels like a waste of a gifted actress.

Worst of all is Tobey Maguire, who wears the wide-eyed look of confusion of a man lost at a party and desperately in need of the bathroom. His is not the wise, world-weary and compassionate Nick Carraway of the book, but instead a puppy-faced savant who’s mostly out of his depth. Luhrmann invents a framing device of Nick relating the story from a clinic where he’s being treated for “morbid alcoholism”, as Fitzgerald himself was. It seems smart, but all it serves to prove is that the Gatz-Nick (or Leo-Tobey) love story outplays any heterosexual version. (In a press interview, Maguire has commented that “being close to” DiCaprio helped him prepare for the role. I’m sure it did, my pretty). Maguire’s voiceover rendering of the book’s much-loved final sentence, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, is delivered expressively but cluelessly. Following Zacharek’s line, it’s apparent that Maguire has no idea what he means, only that It’s Great Literature and needs to be intoned Very Seriously.

In the end, though, it wasn’t the noise and excess and hip-hop shimmying of Gatsby that disappointed me, as much as Luhrmann’s muddled narrative choices. Every director is entitled to shape a story for themself, of course – I just think Luhrmann’s choices are the wrong ones. Keen to corrall the story into the “Love Conquers All” theme of his other films, he loses the subtleties of the novel – the mutual dislike of Old New York and New Money, Nick and Daisy the awkward Mid-Westerners adrift in the Big Apple, the lingering sense that the Big Party of the 1920s was soon to be over. I wouldn’t expect a contemporary director, much less an Australian, to be attuned to these shadings, but for a film that tries so badly to look like it’s set in a Hollywood version of the 1920s, it sure doesn’t feel “period”.

One of the great brutalities of the novel is the endgame where Daisy chooses money and privilege over love and returns to her husband, abandoning Gatsby and not turning up to the funeral the ends the story. This could have been a great opportunity for Luhrmann and Co to extend Daisy’s role, or at least show the break-up through her eyes, and I’m sure Mulligan would’ve knocked it out of the park. But Luhrmann has Daisy float off vaguely at the end – presumably so as not to uglify the Great Romance of Gatsby and Daisy that he seems so set on preserving. He also misses what I think is one of the great scenes of Gatsby or any other American novel – the heartbreaking tweflth-hour appearance of Gatz’s father, bearing evidence of Gatsby’s self-fabricated life. Perhaps it was too static and novelistic for a film version, although I suspect it also distracted from Luhrmann’s primary interest – photographing young pretty people being rich and miserable. Either way, it’s a major hole in the narrative, which Luhrmann tries and fails to rectify by adding a clumsy flashback to Gatsby’s past midway through the film.

Gatsby might be a mess, but like all travesties, it has its appealing distractions. The soundtrack is great – a witty play on 1920s Charleston tunes with a hip-hop and 1990s hard house overlay, which feels appropriate. (Jazz was, after all, the appropriation of black music into the white mainstream). The 3D format still looks cartoonish, but serves to give some depth to Luhrmann’s remarkably flat compositional style. (It only occurred to me on seeing Gatsby how much Luhrmann’s films look like Annie Liebowitz photographs: everything is on the surface, with no depth, visual, emotional or otherwise, on display.)

That said, some of the film’s images are marvellous. There’s a lovely sequence where a laughing Gatsby throws his rainbow coloured selection of dress shirts down onto Daisy, lying on the bed below, while on the soundtrack, Lana del Rey croons “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful” amid sweeping orchestral strings. It’s the one moment in the film where Luhrmann’s balls-out romanticism meshes with Fitzgerald’s story and creates cinematic magic. The rest, sadly, feels uncomfortably busy and rushed. The editing, as in Moulin Rouge, is so frenetic that audiences aren’t given sufficient time to drink in all the lavish details of set and costume, the work of Luhrmann’s regular collaborator and wife Catherine Martin.

“Is it too much?”, Gatz asks Nick, as they sit among huge floral arrangements and tiers of fancy cakes with which Gatz has redecorated Nick’s apartment, in preparation for Daisy’s arrival. “I think it’s what you want,” Nick says, tactfully, not wanting to crush Gatz’s hopes. That exchange typifies the experience of watching Gatsby. Like Jay Gatsby, Luhrmann is an overgrown child who wants to dazzle us with his precocity, his showmanship and the power of his cracked imagination. Although you’re on the verge of a migraine, have gone temporarily deaf and your ass is starting to cramp after what feels like two years in your cinema seat, you can’t help but want to indulge him by enjoying the movie. Alas, for this little brown hen, at least, it felt more like endurance than enjoyment.

Since starting this draft I’ve had the benefit of being able to read my friend the fabulous Gemma Gracewood’s review for Metro magazine in New Zealand. The Great Gracewood theorises that the appeal of Gatsby will be lost on who she calls the largely male contingent who loved the book, but will be adored by women. Sadly, GG’s word limit doesn’t allow her to expand on this theme, but I think I know what she means: It’s a “Men Are From Gatz, Women Are From Leo” situation.

There’s a generation of women, now in their late 30s and early 40s, who grew up having a crush on Leo in Romeo & Juliet, and that other small arthouse film he made about a sinking ship. Now those ladies are all grown up with mid-life crises of their own, and alongside them, Leo has thoughtfully matured into the kind of straight gay man who could be the romantic lead in a chick-lit novel. He’s boyishly cute, he dresses well, he smells nice (we suspect), he’s faithful, he’s kind, he likes giving parties, and best of all he’s constructed a huge Disney mansion in honour of the girl of his dreams. In a post Sex and the City universe, nothing says true love like real estate. Leo-as-Gatz allows women of my generation (and a fair few men of a certain persuasion) to relive their youth and rekindle a long-term love affair, with the trappings of adult wealth and privilege as an added bonus to the Prince Charming fantasy. It’s like 50 Shades of Grey, just without the bondage or the shit writing.

For me, the tragedy of this approach is that it conveniently ignores Fitzgerald’s and Gatsby‘s ambivalence about fabulous wealth –  though perhaps that says more about the materialism of my generation than anything else. Luhrmann clearly understands his audience demographic, and is arguably just giving people what they want: a guilty pleasure in which youth, wealth and decadence is celebrated rather than held up for scorn. Jay Gatsby might be the cipher for the evils of capitalism or the dangers of a world that worships beauty and celebrity if you’re a neo-Marxist university lecturer. But for Luhrmann – and anyone else under the age of 45 – there’s no ambivalence at all. Fabulous wealth is, well… fabulous, and at least if Gatsby dies young he leaves behind a beautiful corpse.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that contemporary audiences are so willing to embrace the appeal of the über-rich and are correspondingly so uninterested in the unravelling of money and power in Fitzgerald’s final act – even in our modern age of failed get-rich-quick schemes, remade identities and fortunes made and lost. There’s nothing wrong with movies as escapism, of course, and I fully support audiences’ rights to go along and be dazzled by Luhrmann’s pyrotechnics and the glint of DiCaprio’s perfect toothy smile. But somehow this Gatsby could’ve all been more than all of that, rather than just being too much.

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