Film: The Old Razzle Dazzle

The good news about the new Great Gatsby adaptation: It’s the ultimate Baz Luhrmann movie.

The bad news about the new Great Gatsby adaptation: It’s the ultimate Baz Luhrmann movie.

Over the course of two decades and five movies, the Aussie filmmaker has managed to garner a loyal following, as well as some passionate detractors. Me? I love his movies, until I don’t. The man has a Spectacular Spectacular capacity to sabotage his own work. It’s not so much the excess that’s grating, though he adheres to the “more is more,” Everything But the Kitchen Sink School of Cinema. It’s his inability to modulate the quieter moments, the way the grandiosity of his vision stifles the very raw emotions that probably compelled him to make a particular film, that rankle this reviewer.

Does this mean his movies have zero replay value? On the contrary. The sensory overload benefits from repeat viewings. (Raise your hands if you’ve seen Moulin Rouge more than twice. Mm-hmm, thought so.) Luhrmann brings the whole kit and caboodle to his characteristically florid take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brooding, richly observant portrait of the idle well-to-do on Long Island circa 1922. The story brings out the auteur’s best and worst instincts, but maaaan, does he know how to put on a show. And this time he does with 3D cameras. Purists will carp about the format, but this is one toy that, for the most part, feels right at home as part of Luhrmann’s bag of tricks.

Give the Strictly Ballroom creator credit for knowing how to set the perfect mood. The movie starts with a scratchy black and white screen, and the mournful 20s tune that plays in the soundtrack captures the exquisite melancholy in Fitzgerald’s prose. I could have done without the framing device Luhrmann and longtime screenwriting collaborator Craig Pearce have devised. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the book’s narrator/voyeur, winds up in a sanitarium following his time on Long Island, and his psychiatrist (Aussie mainstay Jack Thompson) asks him to write about that time he spent rubbing elbows with the East Coast elite. Maguire’s up to the task, even though there isn’t anything in the novel that suggests that this preppy, well-adjusted boy next door would unravel in such an extreme fashion. And I kept resisting the urge to walk through the movie screen and hand the saucer-eyed Spider-Man star a comb. That lock of hair falling, just so, across his forehead is annoying.

Off we go, back in time to the heyday of flappers, Charleston and buckle shoes, and Kiwi cinematographer Simon Duggan glides over the opulent palace purchased by the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, aka Luhrmann’s Romeo). The movie revels on the gaudy hedonism of Gatsby’s soirées, to such a degree that Luhrmann almost forgets there’s a story he’s supposed to tell. No complaints here, though. This Gatsby has been directed by a party animal, and whenever the glitzy sets and costumes, accompanied by an anachronistic grab bag of contemporary and period-accurate songs, take center stage, the movie thrives. It’s The Age of Innocence on acid, a Merchant Ivory production taken over by Federico Fellini. Luhrmann reaches giddy stylistic heights during these sequences, and for a while I was certain he finally got to make the movie he’s always had in him, the one that would silence the naysayers and deservedly turn him into a household name.

But then it becomes apparent Luhrmann’s just getting us high, drunk on the virtuosity of his visual curlicues. His Gatsby‘s a drug that eventually wears off. DiCaprio’s enigmatic gent reconnects with former flame Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who, during his absence, married short-tempered millionaire Tom Buchanan (a gruff, appropriately brusque Joel Edgerton), who is having a fling with desperate housewife Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Other than Maguire’s loony bin scenes, Luhrmann hews closely to the source material, excising little but blaring the more intimate moments at full blast. That might have worked for Moulin Rouge‘s turn-of-the-20th-Century couple, Strictly Ballroom‘s mismatched dance contestants, or Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, but dealing with Fitzgerald’s romantic quartet demands a subtle hand, a delicate balance between an awareness of the period’s class divide and an acute eye for the protagonist’s psychological complexities, the way his shady business acumen contrasts with his endearing naïvété in the love department. He’s an all-American dreamer, a slick, soft-spoken Icarus whose secretive nature is shrouded in warmhearted generosity. DiCaprio hits all those marks, at least whenever Luhrmann’s not cutting away to the next bit of flashy razzle dazzle.

Like his lovelorn lead, Luhrmann is trying too hard to please, and The Great Gatsby fizzles just when it’s supposed to be punching us in the gut. That said, the joy the film’s sleek surfaces elicit cannot be overstated enough. Even as the finale steamrolls over the book’s lyrical commentary on the American adventure, it’s hard to deny that the filmmakers’ delirious brand of stereoscopic Technicolor showmanship, its retro yet postmodern nod to Hollywood’s Golden Age. They’re working overtime to deliver the goods, and the effort pays off…until it doesn’t.

Luhrmann’s not the only celebrated filmmaker returning to old thematic stomping grounds. French bad boy François Ozon, a prolific jack of all trades who is equally known for his kitschy comedies (8 Women, Potiche) as he is for his knotty psychological thrillers (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool) opts to cover the latter territory in In the House, which adds a self-referential layer to the take of Monsieur Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a cynical high school literature teacher, who takes an interest in one of his students, quiet, 16-year-old Claude Garcia (Ernst Unhauer) when a paper on what he did over the weekend evolves into an ongoing yarn involving the young author, his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), and Rapha’s parents (Emmanuell Seigner and Denis Ménochet).

Ozon sinks his hooks on us in sly Hitchcockian fashion, as Germain and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) become more and more obsessed with Claude’s morally ambiguous relationship with his colleague’s bourgeois clan. And just as it’s building momentum, In the House stops in its tracks, just when Ozon ought to be turning the screws on the audience. Sequences that dramatize Claude’s writing begin to mesh with Germain’s deconstruction of his student’s “fiction,” and this cat-and-mouse thriller is too often sidetracked into wanting to be a meditation on authorship. By the time Ozon arrives at the movie’s climax, I just felt relief that he had finally gotten to that point. He has made a gripping film. He’s also way overthinking his material. Sometimes it’s best to just tell the damn story and refrain from pausing to comment on it. Know what I mean?

In the House opens its doors to potential buyers on Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com). That same day, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby‘s begins taking viewers on a wild ride in wide release. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

About Ruben Rosario

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