‘The Great Gatsby’: Good enough

May 7, 2013

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Apparently, it’s already open season on Baz Luhrmann’s version of “The Great Gatsby,” which blasts off in 3D on Friday before opening the Cannes Film Festival next week. I have a hunch the knives have been out since it was postponed from its 2012 release date.

But don’t believe the hate. “The Great Gatsby” is not a terrible film; indeed, it’s a surprisingly affecting one.

I’m no Luhrmann apologist. I’m one of those who thought “Moulin Rouge” was silly and overrated. As for his indigestible “Australia” from 2008, well, at least the continent itself survived.

Yet I found myself pulled into the emotional world of Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” despite only a couple of really outstanding performances and an in-your-face phoniness to the imagery which the film wears as a badge of honor. In translating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the 1920s, Luhrmann turns it into an indictment of conspicuous consumption and the erosion of the human spirit that inevitably results.

In spite of the trappings of 3D and a Jay-Z-infused soundtrack, Luhrmann does find the beating heart at the center of this overstuffed enterprise. It rests firmly in the person of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby, who single-handedly breathes life into a film that is nearly sunk by the glum Carey Mulligan and the lightweight Tobey Maguire.

The story – in case you never took high-school English – is about the attempt to reclaim lost love (and the past in which it existed). It is told by Nick Carraway (Maguire), recently returned from World War I and attempting to make a go of it in the financial world. He rents a small cottage on Long Island and finds that he lives next door to a fabulous mansion, home to extravagant parties.

But he’s not invited to any of those parties until Gatsby discovers that Nick is a cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan), who is married to the boorishly wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and lives across the bay from Nick (and Gatsby). Daisy, it turns out, is Gatsby’s great lost love, left behind to marry Tom when the penniless Gatsby went away to war. Now he’s back – and is convinced that, given enough time with Daisy, he can remind her of what they once had and lure her into leaving Tom.

In Luhrmann’s version, this is a story about the strange symbiosis between users and those who are used. Nick, for example, uses Gatsby to enter a world otherwise denied to him. He doesn’t care that the smooth, elegantly confident Gatsby wouldn’t give him a second look if he didn’t have something that Gatsby desperately wanted.

It’s also about living the high life as though it were the only one that existed. Gatsby is rich (though the source of his wealth is shadowy) – and that’s all that matters. Wealth seems to exempt both Gatsby and Buchanan from the rules of society, with society bowing and scraping to make sure they can. The rich are different from you and me.

They are the masters of this particular universe, and from the distance of time, we know where they are headed, even if Fitzgerald wrote this prior to the 1929 crash. The echoes of the run-up to the financial debacle of 2008 are obvious, with extravagance being the only form of taste seemingly allowed in this world.

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But as firmly as Gatsby has constructed his persona as a wealthy man of influence, he still harbors insecurity about his personal truth. He is, in fact, a swindler with grandiose dreams, a poor boy who has reinvented himself by coloring outside the lines and bending rules that always seem more flexible for the rich. But he lives in fear of discovery and so that preternatural calm is easily cracked and, eventually, shattered.

DiCaprio plays Gatsby without swagger but with a strength and determination that is that much more poignant when it begins to erode. He captures the sense of a man desperately in love with an image from the past, trying to make this bit of his history into something more substantial than the wispy smoke of memory. When his plan begins to collapse, DiCaprio lets the desperation ooze out, like a sheen of flop sweat that seems to sour everything around it.

DiCaprio’s strength and command carry the movie even when he’s not onscreen, which is fortunate. It becomes clearer with each of his outings that Tobey Maguire is a likable but lightweight actor, unsuited for a role like this. He seems like a high-school kid whose feelings are all on the surface and just that superficial.

By contrast, Mulligan’s Daisy is as wilted a version of this role as you can imagine. She seems as empty as a Kardashian, so much so that it’s hard to imagine what Gatsby sees – or saw – in her. It’s a credit to DiCaprio that we buy this attraction, because Mulligan spends most of the movie in a daze – or perhaps a haze. It’s hard to tell.

Only Edgerton provides ballast to balance out DiCaprio. He’s brusque and canny as Buchanan, a charlatan who revels in his own lack of intellectual rigor. He’s got money on his side; what else does he need?

Luhrmann surrounds them with party scenes that would make Paris Hilton blush, so over-the-top and craven do they feel. The rap-heavy soundtrack seems absolutely right, the contemporary equivalent of the hot jazz of the Roaring 20s in which the film is set. It’s an anachronism and yet a smart one, creating resonance between past and present and amplifying the myopia that glossed over the warning signs and focused on the glitz and glamour.

Luhrmann’s visuals do hold the eye, blending real and computer-generated images in ways that seem deliberately collage-like. It’s not seamless, nor is it meant to be. (The 3D, meanwhile, may make it all feel more immersive but, as always, is wholly unnecessary.)

“The Great Gatsby” isn’t a great film but it is an affecting one, thanks to the depth and breadth of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. His Gatsby is still an untrustworthy weasel with delusions of grandeur and a willingness to do almost anything to get what he wants – but his collapse, when that ruthlessness proves his undoing, is that much more moving because of the heft DiCaprio brings to the role. See it for DiCaprio and you won’t be sorry.

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