Cast:: Leonardo DiCaprio,Tobey Maguire,Carey Mulligan,Joel Edgerton,Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Baz Luhrmann
The Indian Express rating ***
ODD times and an odd director one would think to adapt what is routinely described as the greatest of American novels. And then again maybe not. Wealth is a bad word these days,and yet being wealthy anyhow isn’t,and Luhrmann could be expected to hold nothing back bringing his known excessiveness to this story about the superficiality and attraction of it.
Starting with the 3D — a pointless excess — Luhrmann lives up the roaring 20s,leaving your head spinning with how he imagines Jay Gatsby’s (DiCaprio) “entertainment park”,”circus” parties to be. They come complete with Jay-Z and Beyonce music,acrobats,dance and fireworks. All subtlety is thrown to the wind in Nick Carraway’s (Maguire) wide-eyed description of this aspirational new world he finds himself in.
Luhrmann,who also co-wrote the screenplay,stuns you — and not in a nice way — with this introduction to Gatsby’s world and with later how Gatsby makes an appearance himself. After flashes of him through parted curtains at windows,and snatches of rumous about him,Gatsby slides in quietly like in the novel at Carraway’s elbow,but against fireworks that consistently draw attention away from him.
And this is after Daisy (Mulligan) has herself floated in amidst white billowing curtains that appear part of a wholely unreal fantasy,purported to convey an idea rather than a person. New York seems wholely computer-sprung,as does the ludicrous castle that Gatsby inhabits,across the waters from Daisy’s equally unreal old-money mansion.
And that gets you thinking — does Luhrmann actually know what he is doing? The Great Gatsby,after all,all of 115 pages,is about one man’s fantastical imagination of his life and its meaning,colliding with fact. Witnessed by Carraway and described by him,it gets the context of a relevance and the contours of a tragedy,but Gatsby himself remains a character disassociated with reality — as does failed-writer Carraway,in many ways,in romantic notions about him and himself.
This is where Luhrmann gets it right,once he has gotten over the party phase. There is an eerily unreal quality both to Gatsby’s old life and new,the stories he spins around them,the parties he holds,the settings he creates,the ferociousness with which he clings to everything,the desperation with which he desires Daisy,the blind eye he turns to everything else,and even the calm that settles on him when things start falling apart.
DiCaprio is excellent at each of this,in his persona of a poor boy casting himself helplessly in a mould he has convinced himself is right for him. The fact that Luhrmann spells out what is only left unsaid in the novel helps DiCaprio bring more passion than Gatsby gets to the book — and DiCaprio is none the worse for it.
Not left much of a room to develop any individual personality of his own,Maguire pales in comparison — an insipid observer,given the thankless job of reciting this story from a sanatorium for the alcoholic,often with words from his typewriter running like a scroll in cursive on the screen.
At first glance,the dimuntive and insipid Mulligan appears an odd choice for Daisy,but as the film progresses,you can see the golden-girl,shiney niceness,which is what Gatsby was drawn to,in her. It’s easy for her to be carelessly and thoughtlessly cruel,even when expecting and getting some tears for herself.
Daisy’s husband Tom is another exercise in in-your-face obviousness from Luhrmann,who casts him as a clear racist and snob — not the product of circumstances he is in the novel. However,his affair with Myrtle and his life with her in New York reeks of another aspect of rapaciousness that the film brings out.
Bachchan comes and goes as an odd choice for Meyer Wolfsheim,Gatsby’s dubious business partner.
Subtlety is not one of Luhrmann’s strong suits,and subtlety is not what he is trying for here — he can’t stop reiterating the significance of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock,for one. In its review of the 1974 Robert Redford-Mia Farrow starrer,The New York Times said The Great Gatsby novel didn’t lend itself easily to film,for its plot was the size of a pea. In Luhrmann’s hands,it is a giant,diaphanous pod.
To borrow from the book,Gatsby “dispensed starlight to casual moths — just so he could come over some afternoon to a stranger’s garden”. You can fault him for the starlight,you can fault him for the moths,you can fault him for the casualness,but Luhrmann somewhere gets what F Scott Fitzgerald meant.