The Great Gatsby & Happiness Never Comes Alone

June 1, 2013
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It has become a cliché to call Baz Luhrmann a director of video clips rather than motion pictures, but like so many clichés this one has the ring of truth. The Great Gatsby – long-awaited, much-talked-about, supremely overhyped – has arrived. It shows Luhrmann demonstrating his gift for lavish spectacle and his lack of almost every other quality one looks for in a director.

Let’s begin with the good news: Gatsby is not as bad as Moulin Rouge! (2001) – which would receive my vote as the most unbearable movie of all time. It is also a distinct improvement on Australia (2008), a film that was astonishingly bad in an interesting way. One watched in a kind of paralysed fascination wondering just how bad it could get. Such lumpen dialogue! Such terrible continuity! Such a ludicrous plot! Baz likes to compare himself with Fellini, but this was like an Edward D. Wood movie with a budget of $130 million.

Luhrmann is a creature of contradictions – a nostalgic, with a romantic attachment to the golden days of Hollywood; and a pop culture fiend, immersed in the latest music and fashion trends. These strands come crashing together in The Great Gatsby, which manages to stick closely to the plot and dialogue of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, while treating every major scene as if it were a night at the circus.

I won’t dwell on the story, which is well known, and may well be the least significant part of this film. It takes place in 1922, during the ‘Crazy Years’ of jazz and prohibition, as the United States dances towards the Great Depression and a new war. A world-weary narrator, Nick Carraway, reminisces about his millionaire neighbour, Jay Gatsby, and his extraordinary capacity for hope.

The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story and an oblique portrait of an age. In the character of Gatsby, Fitzgerald created a complex blend of idealism and corruption that mirrored the United States itself.

Gatsby is known for his lavish parties, and there was never any doubt that Luhrmann would go completely over-the-top with these scenes. Not satisfied with the lively music of the Jazz age, he throws in a mass of hip hop and electronica by artists such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Will.I.Am, The XX, Nero and Sia. There are also moody ballads by the likes of Lana Del Rey and Florence + The Machine.

If most of these names are mysterious to you it simply means you are not as cool as Baz, who seems to imagine that every shallow, ephemeral sentiment in a pop song should pierce us to the soul. When he wants to pay homage to the actual music of the period he pulls out Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which gives a good indication of the subtlety of his thinking.

‘Subtlety’ is a word that does not exist in Luhrmann’s film-making vocabulary. He and his co-scriptwriter, Craig Pearce, are respectful enough of Fitzgerald’s elegant, prose to lift great slabs of it, but every scene that is tense, ambiguous or elegaic in the novel becomes a blunt instrument with which the audience is bludgeoned into submission.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan may have been “careless people”, in Fitzgerald’s famous phrase, but nobody in this movie is carless – and every car trip is a Formula 1 race. An early scene of a drunken party in Tom Buchanan’s love nest in New York, is turned into a Roman orgy. Lunch with Gatsby’s shady colleague, Wolfsheim, takes place in something resembling the Cotton Club rather than a quiet restaurant. And so on. In the awkward stand-off with Tom that precipitates the story’s tragic conclusion, Gatsby not only loses his composure, he grows violently hysterical.

It is as if Luhrmann doesn’t believe viewers are capable of understanding anything unless it is spelt out in the crudest, most obvious manner. Duh.

The major addition to the story is the conceit that the narrator, Nick Carraway, is receiving treatment for alcoholism and depression from a doctor (Jack Thompson) who encourages him to write the story down. The only benefit of this unnecessary device is that it shows how crummy the script gets when Luhrmann and Pearce have to invent lines rather than borrow them. As Nick begins to write, the words fly off the page and buzz around like a swarm of bees, in one of many CGI effects that add precisely nothing to the story.

One suspects that some effects have been included simply to take advantage of the 3D technology that seems so out-of-tune with Fitzgerald’s theme. Gatsby discovers the futility of surrounding himself with interesting people and expensive objects in order to impress one girl from the upper classes, but Luhrmann aims us to impress us with every bell and whistle known to the modern film-maker’s art. His camera swoops and dives like a tracer missile, zooming over the stretch of water that separates Gatsby’s mansion from that of the Buchanans. If he’s not flying us through the sky, we are being whirled around in a centrifuge. One almost needs a seat belt.

It is remarkable how lines that sound so poetic in the book become pure corn in the movie. This is partly due to the way Luhrmann likes to milk everything for maximum effect. Characters frame their exchanges with long, meaningful stares, every action underlined by superfluous music.

I’ve left discussion of the actors to last because it’s almost impossible for anyone to act convincingly in a film that is such a free-for-all. Nevertheless, Leonardo DiCaprio could be well cast in the lead role, and Tobey Maguire would be a convincing Nick Carraway, if one was able to concentrate on the story. Daisy Buchanan had black hair in the novel, but after Mia Farrow’s portrayal in Jack Clayton’s rather staid adaptation of 1974, she is destined to be forever blonde. Like Farrow, Carey Mulligan is charismatic rather than glamorous, and this seems about right for an alluring, fragile character.

The cast do everything that could be expected of them, but in a Baz Luhrmann film actors are nothing more than glove puppets. Luhrmann is the Peter Pan of world cinema. His style is as egomaniacal as a teenager, and he can’t even blame it on hormones. He gives the impression of being immensely pleased with his own cleverness, but his approach is redolent of ignorance and immaturity. He is a cinematic hooligan who sees all earthly culture as a shop window to be ransacked. He has no sense of what is right and appropriate, because on Planet Baz everything is compatible with everything else.

In every chapter of Fitzgerald’s novel one finds some beautiful, surprising sentence. In every scene of Luhrmann’s film there is something crass. I’ve been through the book looking for a sentence that fits the occasion, and this is the best I’ve been able to find: “It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”  In other words, if you love the book, you may not enjoy the video clip.

Any movie would be an anti-climax after the gargantuan indulgence of The Great Gatsby, but James Huth’s Happiness Never Comes Alone is a lightweight affair from every angle. This French rom com charts the transformation of Gad Elmaleh from bug-eyed buffoon to soulful romantic lead, while the perennially sexy Sophie Marceau is obliged to take the pratfalls. If you think it must be hilariously funny to see Marceau fall flat on her face, this is the film you’ve been waiting for.

Elmaleh plays Sacha Keller, an accomplished musician who makes a living by writing jingles for TV advertisements, and spends his evenings playing for drinks in a bar. Sacha has a free and easy approach to life, being happy to be a playboy with no commitments. He is allergic to love, he detests chldren, and still gets his laundry done by his old mum.

You’ll be amazed to learn that all this changes when he meets Charlotte, the estranged wife of business tycoon Alain Poche (Francois Berléand) – a man who can make or break Sacha’s paltry career. Soon we find Sacha playing daddy with Charlotte’s three kids, while trying to write a smash hit musical with his best friend, Laurent (Maurice Barthélémy). The zany ‘best friend’ is a familiar figure of the French rom com, and Laurent – who wears a pink suit that Jay Gatsby wouldn’t touch – is one of most irritating of the breed ever invented.

The plot is a novel one: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl…” Guess what happens next. One never watches such films because the outcome is in doubt, only to see how many twists and turns may be inserted in the path to the desired destination. Unlike Gatsby, where acting talent is a redundancy, this film owes all of its appeal to the comic skills of Elmaleh and the charm of Marceau. The story is so relentlessly stupid the only relief is to be constantly distracted by details.

At one moment the movie is predictable and grossly sentimental, in the next it is telling us that French people spend much of their lives singing and dancing in bars, before running off for their next orgiastic sexual encounter. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to my experience of Paris, but maybe I’ve been frequenting the wrong neighbourhoods.

 

The Great Gatsby, Australia/USA, rated M, 142 mins

Happiness Never Comes Alone, France, rated M, 110 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 1, 2013