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Film Review

Gatsby in hell

5/29/2013

FILM“The Great Gatsby”

0 stars

Rated PG-13

143 minutes

Drama

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire

Baz Luhrmann’s bastardization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a demeaning travesty. This film represents a sin against cinema and literature of cataclysmic proportions. Toxic rather than intoxicating, the movie breaks a fundamental rule of modern dramatic delivery by using a presentational [rather than representational] style that sends its audience into an exasperating spiral. The movie never so much as dips its slimy toe into the more sophisticated representational mode of storytelling that audiences should and do expect from a drama, no matter how fetishized it might be. All flash and artifice, there isn’t a cubic centimeter of narrative space for this story to breathe, much less resonate. Nuance and subtext are slapped away in favor of a vulgar approach to exposition. Characters don’t express themselves; they defile all they touch or desire.

This isn’t about Baz Luhrmann not staying true to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work of American literature — no one in his or her right mind would expect much editorial restraint from the notorious Baz Luhrmann, a director known for his ostentatious use of costume, spectacle and a kitchen-sink ear for music. This is about a filmmaker so blind to narrative integrity that his taste level sinks before your eyes. There isn’t a mistake of dialogue, composition, musical scoring, direction, lighting, costume or plotting that Luhrmann fails to make. Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” provides a textbook laundry list of everything to avoid when adapting a novel — any novel.

In his defense, Luhrmann tried to make his picture so different from Jack Clayton’s far superior 1974 version that he apparently tied himself in knots attempting to subvert it. The result is an ugly and obtuse mess — so many pretty colors, yet none with a strand of dramatic truth.

Luhrmann’s script — co-written with his usual collaborator Craig Pierce — turns character traits into intolerable distractions. Gatsby’s affectation of calling men “old sport” turns into a drinking game made worse by Leonardo DiCaprio’s bizarre enunciation, which turns the phrase into “old spore.” As humorous as it might sound to hear Gatsby repetitively refer to acquaintances as some form of ancient bacterium, the joke misfires disastrously.

The usually reliable DiCaprio gives an unwatchable performance thanks to Luhrmann’s misdirection, which turns every other character in the story into a faceless disposable bauble. Even if rising-star Garrett Hedlund (“On the Road”) had been better cast in the role of Gatsby and Michelle Williams more suitably as Daisy, the talented actors would doubtlessly still have been just as hamstrung to deliver effective portrayals under Luhrmann’s ill-suited direction.

Anyone who has read Fitzgerald’s book or watched Clayton’s film version (starring Robert Redford) will be staggered by Luhrmann’s kneejerk tendency to alter the story in ways that diminish key elements. Luhrmann gives away the farm relating to Gatsby’s mysterious past. The joys of discovering and guessing Gatsby’s carefully guarded secrets are squandered in manufactured flashback sequences not in the book. Moreover, DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby lets all of his insecurities and untruths show at precisely the moment when Fitzgerald’s character would tighten up. The character is presented here more as an unskilled con man than as someone who devised and executed a calculated if flawed way to obtain the woman he loves. Luhrmann’s faulty instincts fumble every significant plot element he touches. A violently intimate scene in the book — in which a key male character publicly breaks his mistress’ nose — is transmogrified into a slap shown in a throwaway long shot. No aftermath of the troubling event follows, as it does in the book.

One emblematic faux pas that Luhrmann makes is the way he furnishes Gatsby’s mansion. Every nook and cranny is covered in museum-quality pieces of art or antiques. In Clayton’s film version Gatsby leaves the public spaces of his mansion in a blank state, ostensibly to allow for Daisy’s womanly touch when he is able to make his romantic dream of possessing her a reality. The comparison shows exactly how leaving certain narrative aspects open allows an audience to engage with and interpret the story at hand.

Perhaps Luhrmann’s greatest crime against “The Great Gatsby” is that he has suffocated Gatsby’s romantic quest. Baz Luhrmann has not told a story; he has smashed it to smithereens. CV

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