Friday, September 6, 2013

Bring In The Flappers

I finally got around to watching Baz Luhrmann's latest film, The Great Gatsby.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel about a mysterious wealthy man is often cited as the quintessential American novel. Written in 1925, the story tells of the summer of 1922 when the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, meets and befriends his obscenely wealthy next-door neighbor, one Jay Gatsby. As the summer plays out we get to know a small cast of characters--Gatsby and Carraway, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the professional golfer Jordan Baker, Tom's mistress Myrtle Wilson. And the story of this small group of friends is told amid the teeming crush of the Roaring Twenties; Gatsby's immense parties and the explosions of jazz and Prohibition and Flapper culture.

Luhrmann's film, as Baz Luhrmann's films tend to be, is stylistically ambitious and in-your-face. Rather than a straight adaptation of the book to the screen, Luhrmann (who co-wrote the screenplay) opts to intersperse modern musical and performance elements into a setting otherwise fairly faithful to the period. The key performances are excellent: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom; all these are fabulously played. And the film is a visual spectacle, feeling like a single, two-hour special effect.

My first impression of the film was not entirely positive. The jumbling of styles--loud hip-hop and rap sequences spliced into 1920s Jazz-Age settings--felt like a distraction to me, one that continually pulled us out of the moment and felt whimsical and self-indulgent. The rationale for this stylistic mashup was to try and find a way for modern audiences to experience something of the brash and energetic novelty of the times. The book was not a nostalgia tale when it was written; this was a glimpse into a white-hot cultural milieu. Society was changing rapidly in the 20s with (as mentioned) jazz and Prohibition and a booming stock market, and I imagine that Luhrmann felt that just doing the jazz well would take his audience backward rather than propel them into the thrilling unknown. The first time around it just didn't work for me.

But a repeat viewing leads me to doubt my earlier conclusion. It's not that I now think that the music is right for the events depicted (indeed I feel these sequences will feel really dated and perhaps even foolish 20 or 25 years hence), but without the jarring effect of the unexpected I was more drawn into the story.

And the story. Again I'm reminded that it's almost always the story that makes a film for me, and the best stories often come to us first as novels. Luhrmann's Gatsby is a much more moving story on repeated viewing than it seemed at first. There's just so much in it: the (to me) perennial allure of Prohibition and the Jazz Age, the spectacle of great wealth and extreme ostentation, a magical New York setting, an intense love story. And it all plays on the subconscious, the whole story serving as a metaphor for the emptiness of American popular culture, and the almost nihilistic destructive potential of a vast economy based on ugly market forces.

I wasn't sure at first about Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway, but he won me over by the end. He has an approachability, a "regular guy-ness" that lets us relate to him and that plays well against the almost mythical aloofness of Gatsby (who, it must be said, spends a lot of his time in the film being something less than mythically aloof. Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, he spends a lot of his time being rather "un-Dude"). The arc of the story gets under one's skin. It's a melancholy tale told against the backdrop of epic celebration and limitless wealth.

So what struck me at first as a B- film has risen to a B+. I feel like I want to watch it again.


dbackdad said...

I'm even later to the party ... I still haven't seen it. But I want to. I was a fan of Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I loved the frenzy and spectacle of it all, but I enjoyed te story even more.

William Stachour said...

I just re-read the novel--I now think it's been 20 years or more--and the writing really sucks you in! I'd really like to see the film again, but I think I'll wait and make my wife watch it with me!