Monday, May 6, 2013

LIZ SMITH: To "Gatsby" or Not to "Gatsby?

To "Gatsby" or Not to "Gatsby?" That is the Question.
Baz Luhrmann's Ripe Re-Invention of a Jazz Age Classic for the 21st Century.

Monday, May 6, 2013
by Liz Smith

"NOTHING SUCCEEDS like excess,” said Oscar Wilde.

Alas, or luckily, Oscar never saw Baz Luhrmann’s latest interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby.”

Mr. Luhrmann has done the impossible — he has rendered “Gatsby” lurid, noisy and without soul.
STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as the shallow socialite with whom he is obsessed, and Tobey Maguire as the sensitive narrator of the tale, director Luhrmann, for reasons known only to him, decided to shoot this intimate story in 3-D. He says Fitzgerald was a “cinematic” writer and would have approved. I have seen but one film, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” where the 3-D process didn’t distract. Here, the distraction is overpowering and definitely unnecessary. In fact, it is laughable. The soundtrack is also snicker-inducing, with modern Jay-Z hip-hop songs peppering the endless “Moulin Rouge”-style wild parties at Jay Gatsby’s mammoth estate and other equally eye-and-ear hurting sequences. Is this really like the Roaring '20s?
I COULDN’T help but think about the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby.” It was a critical and financial disappointment, but in the gaudy face of Mr. Luhrmann’s vision, I see a re-evaluation on the way. In the ’74 film, Mia Farrow, Karen Black and Bruce Dern gave somewhat over-the-top performances. Robert Redford was criticized for being restrained to the point of ennui. And not showing Gatsby’s “tough” side. He was too elegant. Well, now I say, three cheers for ennui and elegance!

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.
Carey Mulligan and DiCaprio as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.
The brilliantly talented Leonardo shows us nothing but Gatsby’s pompous posing and shifty gazes. The warm and embracing smile, the romanticism and the hope that Nick Carraway (Tobey) sees in Gatsby, are absent.

Leo is also, despite being bronzed throughout, puffy-faced and not looking quite his best. DiCaprio, despite his hot minute as sex-symbol is really, and always has been, a great character actor. And he’s been robbed of an Oscar on several occasions! If I had to re-cast this one, I’d select Ryan Gosling.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy? I’ve come to think this role is impossible, for any actress. We are supposed to have some empathy for this Zelda-like character, despite her pretensions and betrayals.

But, we are also supposed to see what she is, from the first. Miss Mulligan is lovely to look at, but has a somewhat flat affect. I actually began to long for Mia Farrow’s quirky, hysterical Daisy — totally wrong but like a train wreck, impossible not to notice. (Mulligan is good, however, in the famous hotel room scene, where she is compelled to make a heartbreaking confession.)

Joel Edgerton is suitably brutish as Daisy’s husband, though he seems almost a cartoon of vile debauchery. Tobey does what he can as the innocent narrator and Elizabeth Debicki is icy, beautiful and impressive as Jordan, the socialite golf pro.
IS IT sumptuous to look at? Yes. But is that really the point of “The Great Gatsby?”? This is Fitzgerald strained through Mr. Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia.”

(By the way, I loved “Australia,” despite its length and the fact that it was six unconnected movies in one. You weren’t supposed to take it seriously. I didn’t, and had a good time. “The Great Gatsby” — I expect to take it seriously!)

I have heard some chat that the “Gatsby” costumes will bring back 1920’s style. I doubt it. Theoni V. Aldredge won an Oscar for her designs for the Redford/Farrow film. But Twenties styles did not return. The designer for Baz’s film is less accurate, everything looks fairly trashy, really. Nobody need worry that they’ll be forced into cloche hats and short straight-line dresses with fringe.

Maybe millions will love this movie. For instance, I loathed “Les Miserables” — as a play and even more as a film — but it made money. And Anne Hathaway won an Oscar — and for that I was glad!

So my opinion is just that — my opinion. Perhaps it will take HBO or Showtime or the BBC to finally render “The Great Gatsby” properly. Or never. It seems to be literature and no film can get it right.

In any case, the box-office will rule. As will what’s left of the music industry. Anticipation for the soundtrack is high and hot.
At the Warner Bros. World Premiere of GATSBY (clockwise from top left): Leonardo DiCaprio; Carey Mulligan; Tobey Maguire; Joel Edgerton; Isla Fisher; Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.
NOW, BEFORE you think I am a monster, I did attend the Peggy Siegal luncheon for “Gatsby” last week at the New York Public Library, mostly populated by film and fashion scribes.

Anna Wintour
was among the hosts, and most of the stars attended — Miss Mulligan, Mr. Maguire, Mr. Edgerton, and Miss Isla Fisher. Every one of them was amusing, sensitive, passionate about the film and their roles. Baz Luhrmann was there too and he’s super passionate.

Let me say this, no film, certainly nothing on this massive scope, is meant to be bad. Elizabeth Taylor once said to me, in the wake of some brutal criticism, “My God, do they think we set out to make a bad movie?!” And maybe “The Great Gatsby” isn’t bad.

I did notice a generational gap. The younger folks liked it a lot. The older ones did not. “The Great Gatsby” opens on Friday. I was informed that I was embargoed from writing about it till the 6th, today. I assume other and perhaps more positive critiques will be available.

Lunching and listening to the directors and stars didn’t change my opinion, but I came away liking them very much and admiring their commitment and heart.

Oh, funniest line. Isla Fisher, who plays the pathetic Myrtle was asked, How did it feel to play a floozy?” She answered, “I’ve never not played a floozy! And if my poor father was here he could attest to that.”

Contact Liz Smith here.

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