The last time I saw a Luhrman film in the theaters I started gagging myself with a plastic straw, as I found induced vomiting to be a more enjoyable sensation than fixing attention to the stilted dialogue and wooden singing. The girl I was with liked it; I should have cut my losses with her then, but youthful lust can be retarded. Love throws out your compass, which is why I suppose that it’s the thing every gangster fears. Hitters and hustlers can be anticipated and deflected; a soft heart is a target for all the world. That lesson, derived from Fitzgerald’s Great. American. Novel., is probably why Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is an executive producer of this film, and why he secured Mr. Luhrmann to direct.
To his credit, Mr. Lhurmann made a sufferable film this time. Mr. Luhrmann’s got a good formula for that coveted 12-34 demographic. Want to know his recipe? Here you go:
Baz Luhrmann ‘Bohemian’ Tween Period Drama
1 Extremely handsome boyish lead actor (Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gastby)
1 Large eyed beautiful woman impaled on a crucible of financial insecurity (Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan)
1 Mustachioed aristocratic villain with no noteworthy attributes beyond wealth, douchebaggery, and an unearned sense of aristocratic merit (Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan)
1 Bohemian exotic character. Can be transvestite, or a midget or whatever suburban people consider evocative of actual alternative culture (Brendan Maclean as Klipspringer)
1 mixtape of recent Billboard 40s hits songs mashed up, featuring cross genre covers.
1 historical period traditionally associated with affluence and decadence- renaissance Italy, fin du siecle France, the roaring 20s.
Preparation: Begin with heavy handed narration by burnt out heartbroken survivor (In this Instance, Hollywood’s favorite nebbish, Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carroway). Flashback to said narrator, now emerging as an ingénue and audience proxy as Baz takes you onto the roller coaster. Show massive, exuberant decadent parties. Introduce love interest. Introduce villain. Build the romance. Have one or other partner of romance succumb to doubt or cynicism. Then a beautiful person dies due to machinations of villain. Regretful narrator repeats main themes of the film.
Season with some of the best set designers and costume designers and the industry, and serve. Watch the money roll in.
You can probably tell that I don’t like Baz Luhrmann as a film-maker. You don’t know why, and I only just figured it out tonight: I hate a film-maker that is unwilling to trust his audience. Mr. Luhrmann strangles the audience in a death grip of beats and jump cuts as though he somehow has the delusion that he will cease to exist if the attention of the audience falters even for a moment. In his past films, he has rarely shown the patience to allow the characters to breathe as persons, and thus develop authenticity and empathic connection. Luhrman’s great flaw is that he is unwilling to trust himself, his audience, or his material, and so instead he relapses to a flurry of jackhammer exposition blows. You almost had me in this movie around the 80 minute mark, sir; but then you insisted on having them babble about the Green Light and you lost me again. Luhrmann has a great eye, but he does not let that eye speak; and even when loaned a superlative tongue, he rarely permits that tongue to see.
A more charitable critic might perceive the beginning of a transition and a maturation in the film-maker. Perhaps, being given such a text, Mr. Luhrmann is more willing to let the story do the telling. But I think such delicate lessons will be forgotten in the net earnings reports on the DVD sales. Hope is another man’s game.
I can see why people think Fitzgerald and Luhrmann would make a good pairing; both had a love for big parties, big spectacles, hyperbole, and loud metaphors. And Luhrmann does get certain parts and aspects of the book, aspects that the 1975 Redford outing missed. But he doesn’t know how to handle subtlety or nuance well. I found myself filled with longing for a film that will never be, a Robert Altman Great Gatsby, where Gatsby is never shown, only mentioned by the ensemble cast.
Another thing to understand is that Luhrmann does not actually make period dramas; his chicanery is that he makes period themed New York raves, and films them. This is another part of the insincerity, and pandering, which is why I’ve previously disliked his films. He’s not interested in the verisimilitude of The Moment; he’s interested in telling the shallow proxy of The Moment as captured through the lens of a Mardi Gras, themed in celebration of The Moment that was never known.
This film is not The Great Gatsby: The Movie.
It is The Great Gatsby: The High School Book Report: The Movie.
Let’s move on to the actors.
Leonardo is quite the drowned prince, isn’t he? He’s soaking with seawater, soaking with rain, soaking in the swimming pool. Always wet and hairless. My guess is he took this role because he wanted to show Robert Pattinson how it’s done. And he succeeds amply in that. Did you know that in ancient Greece and Phoenicia, before they drowned horses and steers, they would drown their princes, their most beautiful children, as offerings to Poseidon and Dagon? Just a tangent, but we like our Adonises better as corpses. Just saying.
Suffice it to say, I think this film will be the date movie of the summer. For young women lacking either in intelligence or sophisticated understandings of actual sexuality, this will be quite the heart-throb film. Putting it crudely, this film will serve as quite the mental lubricant for the ambitions of many a young man.
As the field is yet thin I’d say Carey Mulligan could get a best actress nod, though her odds of staying a nominee our really contingent on the absence of better performances. My favorite bit was Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim. His brief scene accurately conveyed a blend of charm, power, menace, and disrepute quite well.
Ok, wrapping it up:
PROS: Hats off to set designer Beverly Dunn and costume designer Catherine Martin! If you want to watch a movie about beautiful people in beautiful clothes drinking from beautiful cupware in beautiful rooms, this is the movie for you! Wonderful color palettes. Leonardo diCaprio brings the star power and glamour for the role (though hint: Gatsby is Midwestern, not Virginian/Marylander! Wrong accent!). The soundtrack is thoughtfully crafted, especially the instrumental cover of Gotye used as theme.
CONS: Same old Luhrmann narrative structure. And the intonation of the dialogue! Towards the end, the director is wise enough to actually let the actors do this thing called acting, and it gets good. But in too many scenes, Each. Word. Of. Dialogue. Is. Stated. In. A. Clear. Enunciated. Voice. As. If. You. Were. Telling. Your. Child. To. Pay. Attention. This movie doesn’t trust the audience to pick up any theme, motif, or plot point that isn’t telegraphed with a bright red flag and a flaregun. More’s the pity.
Rating: I need to explain the rating that I am going to use in my reviews. We’re no longer in the idyllic age of the $4.00 matinee, and every film outing is now an economic calculation. One film is one month of Netflix; three films is a tank of gas; Four films is a recent video game.
So I am going to rate each film according to what I call the Fair Value of the film. This hideously subjective and biased number is the cash amount that I would consider a fair representation of what a person should be willing to pay to see a film. The baseline for a good but unremarkable film is the modern ticket price, or $10.00.
For future ratings, I’m going to provide a scale of examples for my rating system:
$60- Highest level of cinematic enjoyment, a film of incredible catharsis, entertainment, or provocation. A film that is affecting on a profound fundament of the spirit. $60 is the price I’d pay for getting to precisely relive the experience of watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on opening night when I was at the age of 10. Other examples: Apocalypse Now, Stop Making Sense, The Tree of Life
$40- superior cinematic experience- this film made my week good. First rate, get the DVD, deep satisfaction that can be derived from multiple viewings. Examples: Die Hard, Ghost Busters, The Third Man.
$20- This film made my night. Well worth a second view. Really fun, probably one of the best movies in the theaters at this moment. Examples: Seven Psychopaths, Up, Taken.
$10- I don’t regret seeing this film. It was good enough to be worth the price of the ticket and my time. Worthwhile if lacking in memorability or novelty. Examples: Iron Man 2,
$5- Worth watching when it comes to DVD. A flawed film with some likable moments, or an entertaining train wreck. Examples: Crank: High Voltage, The Brothers Grimm
$0: A Mediocre film and a forgettable waste of time. Not that bad, but not good enough. Examples: Hansel and Gretel, Underworld.
-$10: An unpleasant film that I’d want to have money to endure again. Examples: Bitter Moon,
-$100: A truly torturous or traumatizing film. Not necessarily bad but psychologically harmful or nauseously unpleasant.
Ok, there’s an example of the system. Now to apply my rating system.
FAIR VALUE OF BAZ LUHRMANN’S THE GREAT GATSBY: With earplugs, $9.50; without earplugs, $6.00.*
*IF, however, you are a teenage or twentysomething male with hopes of getting at least some degree of gropage, the fair value of this film probably rises to $20. I’d call this the ‘Get to First Base’ movie of the 2013 Summer.
Until the next repast, with ridiculous pretension,
G.W. Devon Pack