Friday, May 17, 2013

The Bourne (back ceaselessly into the past) Identity

An old friend of mine once said that the difference between reading The Great Gatsby when you’re 17 and reading it again when you’re 32 is like the change that takes place when that snooty stuck-up babe you hated during high school turns into a total sweetheart at your fifteenth reunion.  In that vein, Baz Luhrmann’s movie version is like a prim thoughtful librarienne who now has a fake tan, a fake accent, fake boobs, and a very real drinking problem.  Like, y'know, Nick Carraway in this movie.

Didn’t know old Nick was “morbidly alcoholic,” didja?  Neither did I.  And I certainly didn’t know he’d checked himself into a sanatorium to get himself cleaned out.  And I sure didn’t figure he’d need cleaning out because of this mysterious Gatsby guy; I had him figured as a sap for Jordan Baker, because, y’know, Toby Maguire.  (Is he ever not a sap for somebody?  From Mary Jane to Seabiscuit, this guy does nothing but yearn and suffer.)  And what is the rehab doc’s prescription for all this suffering?  He asks Nick to write the novel we are about to see.  And that’s where the trouble starts.

Because books are not movies.  And using the actual words of the book as voiceover narration does not make for a good movie.  If anything, it hobbles the movie like a plaster cast. Because it’s in flashback, there’s no immediacy.  And because it's a voiceover, well, like it or not, there's a part of our movie-watching brain that immediately recognizes excessive voiceover as a last-resort editing process, unless you do something really clever with it (like in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Opposite of Sex).  When it works, it works against the flow of the movie.  It comments; it’s self-aware, like Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet.  When it doesn’t work, it tells the story for you because the movie is a mess (all of The Lady in Shanghai; parts of Apocalypse Now; most of the Mel Gibson Payback edit). 

This version leans in towards the second type.  In a fervent act of faith towards its source (the kind of act of faith that can be just as deadly as an act of disbelief), Luhrmann delivers a dizzying, over-the-top introduction to Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Jordan, the Jazz Age, and Gatsby himself until about 45 minutes in when he suddenly says “Oh shit—what about the BOOK?” and starts literally throwing words at us.  And I mean literally literally: the words appear onscreen as Nick types them, and they float out into the audience because that’s what typed words are supposed to do in a 3-D movie. 

Maybe Luhrmann thinks that, by repeating the words of a novel on-screen, he’s communicating the ideas that make that novel deep.  He’s not.  He’s doing the opposite.  He’s drawing you out of the world in which he’s trying to immerse you.  He's diminishing everything.  And from this point on in the film, you’re trapped inside a pitched battle between an actual movie and a filmed audiobook. 

And what kind of movie is it?  There’s a dead giveaway in the casting of Meir Wolfsheim:  

It’s got Amitabh Bachchan, people.  This is the Bollywood Gatsby--Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghatsbi. 

How over the top is it?  Look no further than Gatsby’s introduction.  The band is playing, the fireworks are beginning, there are about a dozen pairs of twins dancing in their flapper skirts, there's more glitter and confetti than a Vegas version of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, and Nick is gushing to this offscreen guy about all the rumored things Gatsby’s done.  At which point the unseen guy says something ending in the words “old sport,” and we know exactly who’s talking a second before the camera gives us a full screen close-up of Leonardo DiCaprio, fireworks flashing behind him, orchestra playing the climax of "Rhapsody In Blue," as he grins like God overlooking Creation.  

Prediction: this is the scene that will open the clip montage they’ll play in 40 years when DiCaprio gets his Kennedy Center award.  Followed by the scene in Romeo + Juliet where Claire Danes sees him through the fish tank.

DiCaprio makes for a pretty great Gatsby because he’s grown from being that adult trapped in a young punk to a young punk trapped in the body of an adult.  That youthful face on a man his age says “I’m torn between who I was and who I am” without needing a word of dialogue.  Minor drawback: he talks like he’s trying to pass as a Kennedy, and I think he says the words “old sport” about a hundred times, which is only six less than Gatsby does in the novel.

As Daisy, Carey Mulligan is close enough for Jazz Age, but she’s a weathervane—you get the sense that whoever talks to her last is who she’ll agree with.  She's not the perfect Daisy (which is a whole other topic of discussion) but she's perfect for this movie, where Daisy is just as much a trophy as she is a Marilyn-like vessel for other people's desire.  The big problem I had is that Mulligan comes across as a passenger, not a driver, and if it’s one thing Daisy has to be, it’s someone whose inner viciousness comes out when she’s behind the wheel.  (As Jordan Baker’s does; in the book at least.)

And speaking of Jordan, if there’s anyone who walks away with the film, it’s Elizabeth Debicki.  Except she doesn’t ever walk—when this Jordan moves, she defines the word “sashay” for a whole generation of people who’ve probably never heard the verb before.  The way she says the words “I like large parties—they’re so intimate,” it makes you want to grab her arm, hail a cab, and drive off to the Cotton Club with her.  She’s the Jordan Baker of your dreams, and if she doesn’t get a ton of work and acclaim from this, there ain’t no justice.  (Note: it’s already happening; she’s starring in The Maids in Sydney this June with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.)

Random thoughts:

In a movie where the audio synch is just off enough to give you a headache if you watch the actors’ lips while they talk, Catsby and Nick's car drive into Manhattan gets the Oscar for Worst Audio Dubbing ever.  It’s also got the most edits in it, like Luhrmann was trying to cover up the fact that he recorded the audio this past April on a yacht in Sydney Harbor with a handheld cassette player.

You really don’t have to see this in 3-D.  

The phoniness of the special effects actually works in the movie’s favor.  Everything is tinsel and glitter.  Everything is fake, from the fireworks to the green light.

Having said that, Luhrmann missed a chance to bring us up short by making Myrtle’s death as real and solid as possible.  What a great kick in the teeth that would have been—not a slow-mo fall under the eyes of TJ Eckleburg, but a solid, feel-it-in-your-bones collision.  Alas—it’s just as unreal as everything else.

If you’re actually going to use the lines “Tom and Daisy were careless people,” then you should damn well SHOW them being careless.

The Nick-Gatsby romance is the heart of this version of the story.  

This version of the story could have been titled Two Guys Who Can't Get Laid Because They're Poor.  

The Nick-Jordan romance?  Gonzo.  Which is why Elizabeth Debicki disappears for almost the entire middle third of the movie.  (Can we start a rumor that they actually DID film it, but when Luhrmann saw how good Debicki was—and how she made the Nick-Jordan subplot so much more interesting than the Daisy-Gatsby main plot—he chopped it out of the final cut entirely?)

Other things that have disappeared: Daisy’s daughter (she gets a mention, but if you miss it, you'll be all WTF when she actually makes an appearance at the end.).  And Owl Eyes.  Who makes a brief appearance in the library and then vanishes.  If I remember the book right, he not only shows up at the funeral, but he’s Gatsby’s father.  Not in this version.  In this version, nobody but Nick shows up.

Believe it or don’t, there’s not only a Sunset Boulevard homage, but a Rear Window segment.

And having the actual words of the last line of the book float out into the audience as Maguire delivers the voiceover and we see the green light (all-purpose term paper answer in high school: "The green light at the end of the dock symbolizes hope.")--ow, okay?  Just: ow.

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW:  So who would be your perfect Daisy?

ME:  Louise Brooks.  Tuesday Weld.  (Thalia Menninger could be Daisy’s granddaughter.)  Gene Tierney—who was supposed to play Daisy opposite Tyrone Power, but the producers thought she was too pretty, and when she dropped out, Power dropped out, and the roles went to Betty Field (who?) and Alan Ladd.  And Martha Vickers, of course.

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