Magazine article Variety

The Good, the Baz and the Ugly

Magazine article Variety

The Good, the Baz and the Ugly

Article excerpt


The Good, the Baz and the Ugly


It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, which arrives six months after its originally scheduled December release date but maintains something of a gussied-up holiday feel, like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as staged by Liberace. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that the Aussie auteur behind the gaudy, more-is-more spectacles Moulin Rouge and Australia has delivered a Gatsby less in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel than in that of its eponymous antihero - a man who believes bejeweled excess will help him win the heart of the one thing his money can't buy.

Cinema audiences can prove as fickle and elusive as Daisy Buchanan, too, but a starry cast (and soundtrack) and sheer curiosity value will power this Warner/Village Roadshow co-production to career-best B.O. numbers for Luhrmann (a record currently held by Australia, at $211 million), if not quite enough to justify its supposed $127 million budget.

Like the blinking green beacon at the end of Daisy's dock, Fitzgerald's masterpiece has been a siren song for filmmakers since it was published in 1925. It is often said that great books make for inferior films and vice versa, but there is something particular about Gatsby that seems to defy the screen. Transformed into voiceover, the running first-person narration of Nick Carraway (here played by Tobey Maguire) turns stilted and dry. Scrutinized by the camera's gaze, Fitzgerald's symbols and signifiers become leaden with portent: the green light, the yellow roadster, the mountain of custom-tailored shirts, the unused swimming pool and the ever-watchful eyes staring out from the billboard of an enterprising Queens ocularist. With Luhrmann at the helm, those devices loom larger and more literal than ever.

Of course, to accuse Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce) of overkill is a bit like faulting a leopard for his spots. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it, this is unmistakably his Gatsby through and through, and as with all such carte-blanche extravaganzas, it exudes an undeniable fascination - at least for a while. In the notes for his unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald famously wrote, "action is character," but for Luhrmann action is production design, hairstyling, Prada gowns and sweeping, swirling, CGI-enhanced camera movements that offer more bird's-eye views of Long Island (actually the Fox Studios in Sydney) than The Hobbit did of Middle-earth. Arguably, the movie reaches its orgiastic peak 30 minutes in, with the first full reveal of Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio), accompanied by an explosion of fireworks and Gershwin on the soundtrack. Where, really, can one go from there?

But oh, how Luhrmann tries. Together with cinematographer Simon Duggan, he unleashes every manipulation he can think of - sepia flashbacks, smash zooms, split screens, superimpositions, period newsreel footage, new footage degraded to resemble period newsreel footage - all of it coming at you in three stereoscopic dimensions. Only occasionally does the style seem like an actual response to the text rather than a visual circus operating independently of it.

In one of the pic's more striking passages, Carraway's famous observation that he feels at once "within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled," becomes a lyrical mosaic of shared New York experience. …

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