Sunday, May 12, 2013

How Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' gets it right

First of all, it's good. It's very good. Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" doesn't cast aside the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, nor does it try too hard to be slavishly faithful to the source material. The performances are nuanced and perfect for the moment. In the process, the film creates something new and contemporary while adhering to the spirit of its 90-year-old inspiration.

(By the way, if you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid spoilers, you might want to bail out here.)

I previously wrote about the problems of adapting "The Great Gatsby" for the screen here. Some of those problems stem from the largely internal observations that the narrator, Nick Carraway, makes. If you lose those, you lose the language of the novel and much of the magic Fitzgerald wrought in rendering his time and place. One aspect of that voice - Nick is telling us a story that happened presumably one year before the novel's publication, but he is telling the story with a voice of experience that seems gifted with a perspective many years after the fact.

To solve this problem, Nick (Tobey McGuire) is presented to us not in 1924, but in 1929 - the year of the Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, when the Jazz Age seems as distant as a dinosaur. And instead of viewing the vanished bacchanalia of New York from the comfort of the Midwest, he is in an asylum there, drying out after a long drinking binge, the line between Nick and Fitzgerald at last blurred. (The Perkins Sanitarium - a tip of the hat to Fitzgerald's editor Max Perkins?) And Nick is now, after the fact, not a bond trader, but a writer - and was a frustrated writer before in New York while he worked on Wall Street. The movie goes so far as to show Nick discarding Joyce's "Ulysses" in favor of his new books on finance. This change in vocations isn't a total invention; after all, doesn't Nick himself say that he was "rather literary" at Yale? And doesn't Nick tell us that even then, he became, against his will, the guardian of other people's secrets?

Being the narrator, we understand now that Nick is a voyeur, which explains in part his obsession with Gatsby. (It also makes Nick a sort of cousin with Ewan McGregor's character from "Moulin Rouge!" in that he recounts his memories as a narrative.) But by making him a writer working out a sense of the past for therapeutic reasons, Luhrmann allows us as an audience to experience Nick's observations - and the language - in voiceover, preserving some of the original words. But the screenplay also makes an interesting decision to occasionally paraphrase Nick. Nick's father's advice - "Whenever you feel like criticizing anybody, remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had" instead becomes ""Always try to see the best in people." To some ears, this may sound like dumbing down, but it serves the purpose of moving the narrative forward. And Luhrmann isn't afraid of occasionally mixing his own words with Nick's/Fitzgerald's - there are moments when the observations don't come from the book, and they don't necessarily draw undue attention to themselves as being wildly out of place. When Nick remarks on the "heiresses comparing inheritances" at Gatsby's parties, one has to remember that this melodic snippet isn't from the novel.

These changes in pace and presentation are necessary, as the movie doesn't really hit its stride until Gatsby appears on screen for the first time - faithfully to the book, having Nick suddenly and unknowingly encounter him at one of his parties. We see Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) for the first time in the face, flashing one of his incomparable smiles, as "Rhapsody In Blue" reaches its climax in the background and fireworks burst overhead. Leo's Gatsby is at times subtle, at times dashing, at times affected as he should be (one could play a drinking game based on how many times he utters Gatsby's distinctive "Old Sport" expression), and his performance marks another step forward in his maturation as an actor. He doesn't seem to feel the need to fill the screen, as he did in "Gangs of New York" or "The Aviator." He understands the power of the material and how it is being represented on the screen.

Another change is actually inspired by Fitzgerald - Gatsby's original story of his background to Nick as they drive into town. In the novel, Gatsby tells an incredulous Nick about his war career, his time in the European capitals and his "sad" background, as Nick's skepticism mounts. In the middle of it, a policeman attempts to pull Gatsby over for speeding, but Gatsby flashes a card at the man who promises to remember him next time. The movie translates this fact, which occupies only a few sentences in the larger scene, into Gatsby being a manic driver. The change is inspired. What could be a static scene suddenly is supercharged, and in 3D on the screen, as Nick negotiates both his skepticism and his fear of Gatsby's driving. It also serves another purpose - it makes it easier for the portion of the audience which hasn't read the book to believe it is Gatsby who strikes Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) dead later in the story.

The most obvious changes are in music, as the film score is a mix of hip-hop and pop with a few concessions toward twenties era jazz. This gives the movie a vitality as we navigate our way through a fantasia New York in CGI madness, with 3D tricks and sudden zooms across the bay that separates East and West Egg. The mansions are larger, the parties are wilder and brasher, and even the improvised bash that Tom and Myrtle throw grows into a wilder and cheaper gathering - providing a contrast with Gatsby's much larger "menagerie." These changes may seem cheap, but they accomplish in a visual sense what Fitzgerald's prose does in investing Gatsby's parties, his surroundings, his dreams with both the ecstatic quality that he must view them through, and the "foul dust" that floats around him.

There are also occasional moments where Luhrmann goes a little further than the text in underlining moments for the audience's benefit. When Daisy weeps over the fineness of Gatsby's shirts, we who read the novel know why she is weeping, but on its face, this scene normally appears overwrought on the screen. So for our benefit, Nick's voice tells us that it is suddenly clear what Daisy (Carey Mulligan) has missed in the five years since Gatsby left her life. When Nick and Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) encounter "Owl Eyes" in the library, the partygoer goes farther in telling us how "genuine" the books are, and makes it clearer that Gatsby's image is only a mirage, and that the man may not even exist. (And for the purposes of speed, we are spared Nick's relationship with Jordan, as well as the timely appearance of Mr. Gatz following his son's death. Jordan remains unattainable because of her wealth and fame, and Mr. Gatz's absence underlines the tragedy of Gatsby's funeral, with only Nick there to mourn.)

And during the climatic scene when Gatsby tries to force Daisy's hand and make her tell Tom she never loved him, Tom succeeds in rattling Gatsby so much that Gatsby's cool cracks. Instead of his demeanor subtly dissolving under Tom's brutality, Gatsby lashes out and threatens Tom physically - and Nick sees that Gatsby probably has "killed a man." Cheap? Perhaps, but one hardly minds. It's a movie. Luhrmann uses the big screen and the possibilities of 3D to tell the story more completely than anyone has attempted. One of the reasons for "The Great Gatsby"'s continuing life on the page is the vibrancy of Fitzgerald's vision, not just in the words chosen but the images and their ability to entertain and teach. This movie renders those images tangible - if it isn't quite the book we see in our minds when we read, it is as close as filmed entertainment can get to it.

Just before Gatsby's inevitable murder at the hands of Mr. Wilson, Nick says something telling. For most of the movie, we have understood that Nick is both "within and without" - that he is of the Midwest and not New York, that he is of some privilege and not self-made like Gatsby, that he is a part of the events around him but not engaged in them, that he is like the Buchanans but not infected by their malicious carelessness. But as Nick leaves Gatsby's for the last time, he says, "I have to go. I have to work."

Of course he does - it is the one moment that we see the undercurrent of the novel projected on the screen. "The Great Gatsby" teaches us what the Declaration of Independence does not - that happiness may be pursued, but not necessarily attained. No matter how ambitious the parties, or those who throw them, the business of America is business - and it never stops.

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