Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The point? What point?

Glitzy, over-the-top film, merchandising of Great Gatsby excess misses crux of Fitzgerald's argument

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The Great Gatsby, the much-buzzed-about Baz Luhrmann adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, cost a bomb. (The mahogany millwork, the silver tea sets, the shimmery cocktail dresses, the ash-covered computer-generated poverty, the 3D!)

No surprise, then, that some of the financing, as well as offset production costs, came from luxury product placements and brand tie-ins. Prominent Gatsby partners include Tiffany & Co. jewels, Brooks Brothers suits, Prada dresses and Moet & Chandon champagne.

All this gilded glamour raises the question of whether Luhrmann's more-is-more cinematic fantasy has turned Fitzgerald from a moralist into a mere merchandiser. It also makes one wonder if anyone involved in these ritzy movie-merch spinoffs has actually read the book. Even the Coles Notes summary might help, with its firm declaration that Gatsby is about "the decline of the American Dream (and the) misguided belief that money will lead to happiness."

Maybe Donald Trump thinks that's exactly the kind of thing some underpaid pencil-neck who writes Coles Notes would say. At any rate, cautionary tales about the vulgar rich are clearly lost on The Donald, as the Trump Great Gatsby package suggests. For only $14,999, you get a weekend room at the Trump International Hotel and Tower with a view of Central Park, a Bergdorf Goodman shirt and suit for the gentleman, some art deco-style jewelry for the lady, and a magnum of champagne. (Presumably the novel's three violent deaths and irrevocably lost illusions are optional.)

Tiffany & Co.'s Gatsby collection includes a 5.25-carat diamond headpiece selling for $220,000. That's just what you need to emulate Daisy Buchanan, the original tragic party girl, with her careless, callous vivacity and her voice "full of money."

If you're on a tighter budget, you could try a $4,800 pair of green enamel and gold cufflinks with a JG monogram. Because who wouldn't want to be like Jay Gatsby, old sport, even to the extent of wearing his initials instead of one's own? (There's got to be a Gatsby-type lesson about self-invention and status anxiety in there somewhere.)

Along with the official swag, loads of unofficial lifestyle pieces in magazines, newspapers and on websites are telling you how to drink, dress and decorate like Gatsby. Gatsby-themed party plans include hints for Jazz Age cocktails, food and music.

(Of course, if you want to add some authentic party tips right from the book, you should expect your guests to be a "rotten crowd" of scroungers who will despise you even as they guzzle all your booze and crash their roadsters into a ditch near your house.)

A few commentators have defended the film's luxury tie-ins, pointing out that the story is set during an age of excess. But the problem is not so much the characters' wild, heedless overindulgence -- which can be kind of a kick, actually -- but the fact that Luhrmann seems to possess no point of view about that overindulgence.

The novel is conflicted. Fitzgerald's authorial stand-in, Nick Carraway, is a Midwestern boy, after all, and faced with a fast New York set and their insatiable appetite for speed, sex and drink, he can't help feeling both "within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled."

Luhrmann gets the enchantment but has problems with the repulsion. He loves party scenes, and with his hallucinatory 3D and elaborately artificial sets, you'll feel like you're wandering around drunk inside some art deco View-master. But he's not much good with the morning-after moral hangover, or with that stubborn Midwestern belief that actions should have consequences.

Cinema has struggled with Gatsby before. In the 1974 version, a young, golden Robert Redford wore clothes by designer Ralph Lauren, who was still on the cusp of fame. While the film was mostly dismissed as a miscast, misbegotten adaptation, Lauren's stylish vision of an imaginary American aristocracy proved to be enduring. Lauren's Gatsby success contributed to decades of advertising layouts in which patrician polo players and swan-necked girls in white linen dresses walk down long green lawns into an endless summer afternoon.

The troubled ideas of the novel are doomed in the face of Lurhmann and his brand partners, who offer such a compelling visual world of wealth and luxury and ease. There's a key scene in the book when Daisy is gazing at Gatsby and trying hard to access some deeper well of feeling. The best thing she can say is, "You resemble the advertisement of the man."

Yes, sadly, he does.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 E1

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