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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Party Animal: Film Review by Don Wallace of The Great Gatsby

All unhappy families party alike.
Party Animal
The Great Gatsby is a rave-up.

I have an M.F.A. and I approve this message:

Director Baz Luhrmann had it in his grasp. The Great Gatsby, at last done right for the screen, is the equivalent of capturing lightning in a jar.

It does come close, and you might end up grinning ear-to-ear at some of the stuff in the party-filled second act. I love the music and dancing in the film and, what’s more, think they convey both the period and the personalities in a rare, inventive way.

If I hadn’t seen the recent documentary on Josephine Baker, I might not have recognized how deftly Luhrmann weaves into the story an entire short film about the Harlem Renaissance and black entertainers in white society. And he does it without a single spoken interaction between a black and a white person, underscoring the racism that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters never would’ve questioned.

But Gatsby isn’t about racism. So no matter how acute this part of the film, no matter how exciting Jay-Z’s soundtrack, this can’t be what saves it.

What hurts is that splashy-trashy Luhrmann is done-in not by his forte, going over the top, but by trying to do justice to the words.

Oh, fatal error.

It starts where Fitzgerald ends, with the green light at the end of the pier. (No, Baz, no!) But the second scene is magic. The third, oh dear, oh dear . . . a flashback? The genius of the novel Gatsby–one of the genii–is that there are no flashbacks, old sport.

But the music . . . You’ll see what I mean, because you will see it–if only to hear it. The music and the choreography are modern, not retro, yet in sync with the ’20s.

Carey Mulligan is deeply affecting in the film version of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go, but I was less than enthralled here. Her Southern accent grated; it sounded like something you’d hear in a West End production of The Glass Menagerie. In three of the big scenes she’s first-rate–as is the movie–but for the finale her Daisy Buchanan just misses the important, heartbreaking lie in her character: She didn’t love Gatsby the way he loved her, like a heroine in an epic poem, and so, as Dylan once sang, “She breaks just like a little girl.”

So maybe it’s not her fault, but Luhrmann’s, for how he films this key scene centered on Gatsby’s intransigence–it’s not enough that he have her, he has to have her repudiate the last five years of her life with Tom, to erase it, by lying if necessary. This is a powerful point, the key to Gatsby’s failure, but somehow feels rushed and un-set-up by what came before. We don’t see it coming, despite Leonardo DiCaprio’s best “big” role in a long time.

Instead, Luhrmann weakens DiCaprio’s magical and natural performance with a series of stylized poses intercut like music video freeze-frames. Add in one-too-many “old sports” and the show gets as PowerPointed as a lecture by an associate professor of English literature. In the end, blame a script that doesn’t get granular when it has a chance, in the last third, to finally bring these dreamers closer and closer until they get their noses rubbed in reality.

Instead the story (and camera) hovers. Like a photo-drone. Too bad.

The tea scene at Nick’s cottage is so good. The DJ’d soundtrack and Lana del Rey, Florence + the Machine; songs by Bryan Ferry, Jay-Z and Andre 3000; jazz and orchestral numbers–all are genuinely thrilling. It may be a modern equivalent of Gershwin’s ode to the Jazz Age, Rhapsody in Blue, which it smartly samples. I’ll say it again: This is why you must see Gatsby, to properly hear it.

I would see it again. I will, though I could do without the 3-D glasses. I mean, really, old sport.

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