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Cinema Signal: A narrative failure but visuals to die for. It's worth a look if you value cinematic art. MOBILE: |
. "The Great Gatsby"

Orson Welles had his Citizen Kane. Co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann has his Great Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in 3D. But, Gatsby is no Kane and, so far, Luhrmann doesn't appear to be an Orson. Luhrmann's sumptuous, visually breathtaking romantic biopic comes with dashing style and an emptiness at its core while Kane was a man of signature drive and an ill-used power that led to his downfall. And, yet, Kane and Gatsby had one thing in common. Narcissism. Extravagant narcissism.

Jay Gatsby, as drawn here from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, was a man with a plan. And, when you've got the fortune he has, a plan is as good as a reality, at least as far as the material world is concerned. Trouble is, the control of other people is another matter, especially when the plan consists entirely of going back to the past and taking your one true love with you.

In that past, when he was a returning war veteran, he hadn't a couch to sit on. He was financially impoverished. And that was when he met the fabulous Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, "An Education," who, BTW, beat out Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Blake Lively and others for the role).

It was love at first sight for them both. But the plan was in its infancy and Gatsby had yet to make his fortune. To merit a woman as lusciously beautiful as Daisy, one had to have the means to provide the life such a beauty deserves -- and nothing less than a solid fortune would do. And, so, he went out and got one.

With unerring taste, he built his Long Island castle, he furnished it with the best in every department, and made it a museum -- a grand work of art to go with the fashions of the day. He threw the most lavish of parties for the elite, the famous and the press. He became a celebrated headline maker. And it was all with Daisy in mind.

One day, six years since that fateful meeting when he was in uniform, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Daisy's cousin, moved into the humble abode next to Gatsby. (Are we really expected to buy this?)

In any event, they are neighbors. And, one day, the big man showed up to say howdy to the ever so humble Nick who is narrating the story while he writes it on his ancient typewriter. We don't see the reason why Gatsby would cultivate a friendship with a relative pauper on Egg Island... unless it related to the woman for whom he carried a torch.

He never married or so much as flirted with another woman if our perceptions are right. But she was married. To philandering businessman Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and they lived in a fabulous mansion across the bay from Gatsby's palatial digs. In fact, there was a rotating green light off the Buchanan's pier that Jay watched every night. No, he hadn't forgotten her. He just needed a way to get her into his company and put the final phases of his plan into operation. Nothing too difficult now that Daisy's cousin lived next door. The means to turn the clock back to that instant when he met his love was at hand.

This is what the man's about. This is all the man's about. And, from the viewers' standpoint, there's not much on which to hang a connection, emotional or otherwise. The film raises the spark of fascination, but it's defeated by superficiality, and there's enough of that around here to satisfy a pagan deity. Dig deep and you find that there is no deep. Once we get to know the emptiness of his character the frivolity sets in as the major thematic device and devastates the enterprise.

But, should "The Great Gatsby" not have been made this way? I can't totally answer that except to say that it's a powerful visual display in every aspect and every frame from magnificent period costumery to architecture. The sheer volume of the artistry and color design might be mistaken for gaudy, but on examination, the details are inspirational. Every frame is living cinematic art. Daisy ascending the grand staircase is a painting. The 3-D with Dolby glasses that retain a good portion of the color spectrum is well handled and not overused. If only the movie had as much dimension.

If the movie generates enough boxoffice to pay back its $105,000,000 budget (probably not including promotion costs), it should be a commanding presence at the Academy Awards of 2013 in all categories except, maybe, screenwriting. But even there you never know.

DiCaprio, in a performance that almost mimics the rich plantation owner of Tarantino's "Django Unchained" isn't doing much for his image with such a close character type so soon afterward. Fortunately, we know his talent well enough to also know his career is in no great danger. His approach was to take a man of so little depth and make it a virtue. Or, try.

The major delight of the film is Mulligan, who lives up to the represention of a 100% desirable woman 100%. If it were me on that fateful night years earlier I'd've proposed on the spot. Or, soon afterward. No letting her get away.

The style of tragic portent hangs in the air while affectation in speech and manner and the careless easiness of life has become a trademark representation of the period, Since at least Welles' time, it's become the standard way to depict the lives of the very privileged. They dance; they party; then spend.

Everyone, as Gatsby always says, is an "old sport" even though they may be standing on your toes. "Would you care to get off, old sport?" is a likely line in such a circumstance. But did Welles originate what has become the movie convention of twenties prohibition, soaring stocks and flappers? Or was it someone before him? Since, of course, is most of the work of Stephen Fry.

Maguire, in a classic "fifth business" role, frames the story as the writer of the tale and serves as the first-person narrator. He's as flat as the "old sport" line.

From my perspective, Luhrmann (with co-writer Craig Pearce) wasn't mindful that too much "anti" in "anti-hero" can leave you working hard to really care about a title character's fate, stylish and superficially fascinating though he and his trappings may be. That seems to be what happened here. What the very rich spend or waste their time and money on isn't quite enough to fuel a drama, let alone the cream-colored Rolls Royce and the obsession that drives the plot. In the end, the lesson is that if you're going to make a movie that focuses on your hero's emptiness, that will be the nature of the product.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby
Awaiting the woman who occupies his every thought.

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