Cinema reviews: The Great Gatsby, Beware of Mr Baker, The Liability

After months of suspicious delay it finally comes off the shelf. We were right to suspect. For much of its length, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has the terrible endlessness of films where everything is too short. We are jabbed with effect after effect, in our faces and up our noses in 3D. The director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge! cannot bear to give the slow-release melancholy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel time to work its spell: time might lose the idiot film-goers with short attention spans. So for an hour the story becomes, by hectic turn, a firework display, a party pile-up (Jazz Age gone berserk) and an orgy of Art Deco visuals, thinly threaded by a voiceover making Fitzgerald’s prose sound like comic-book speech balloons. Tobey Spider-Man Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway has the bland rhythms of Peter Parker.

Fitzgerald fashioned a mesmerising title character: the Long Island millionaire whose money and parties were contrived for the retrieval of a lost love. But we are never sure – this is the book’s richness – how refracted Gatsby is as a protagonist. When not the sum of his party guests’ rumours (bootlegger, spy, nephew of the Kaiser), he can seem a projection of Nick’s own romancing wish-fulfilments. Why else craft this friend and on-site portraitist-in-prose, whom Sam Waterston made the most memorable character in the last screen Gatsby (1974)?

In that frothy confection Redford was the mansion-dweller, a matinee-idol Kane in pastel clothes with a pastel personality. Leonardo DiCaprio is more densely wrought, more troubled. Make-up even gives him a resemblance to actor Alan Ladd (Gatsby in the 1949 movie): the Leo eyebrows made older and more defining, the Leo baby face more subtly weathered. After a risible self-introduction – “I’m Gatsby” this Gatsby declaims at a party, with a hands-out gesture like some top-hat-and-tails vaudevillian introducing a song (while fireworks explode in the background) – DiCaprio gives Luhrmann’s film what grace, subtlety and nuance it has. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is a brute with a short fuse; Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is worse, a flapperish ingénue with a squeak for all occasions. What happened to Fitzgerald’s Daisy, that ambiguous beauty with the strange, deep, cascading voice and also the depths of damaged callowness that allowed her to re-woo Gatsby, then reject and betray him?

The plot-catalysing Wilsons, with their garage amid the ash deserts, are dashed through like gangbusters. Luhrmann can spend minutes which seem like hours on Gatsby’s parties – Busby Berkeley dance routines, fountaining champagne, firmament-filling fireworks – but the industrial substructure of the tale’s tragedy, the begrimed underpinning of both Daisy’s corroded marriage and Gatsby’s downfall, gets mere pantomime infilling. As for the ever-watchful eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg, those gigantised ad-hoarding specs that spell “God” to wife-robbed Wilson and perhaps, with a little irony, to Fitzgerald himself, I kept imagining them watched back, as they are and will be in theatres, by a no less terrifying ocular vision: a sea of 3D specs searching for depth amid the deserts of a movie’s shallowness.

For the first five minutes of Beware of Mr Baker, a rockumentary about British drummer Ginger Baker, I thought “This must be a put-on.” Surely that is Ashton Kutcher playing the investigative film-maker “Jay Bulger”, a dark-haired heartthrob-hack bearding the irascible Baker on his South African estate. Baker too is surely played by some geezer from cockney Central Casting. (Jason Statham in old man make-up?) The opening scene wallops home the seeming fantasy. Kutcher/Bulger is violently hit on the nose by Statham/Baker’s polo mallet as he tries to escape in his car.

But no. Baker exists for real. He is a madcap prodigy looking back on a career you would dismiss as too far-fetched even for This Is Spinal Tap. At the career’s heart, we’re told early, is a secret. “It’s a gift from God, Jay, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.” “What?” asks Jay. “TIME!” snaps Ginger like a thunderclap. He means not a long life but the complex, innate, atavistic rhythms of the born drum virtuoso. Baker played with Eric Clapton; sold out Carnegie Hall; got regularly, even religiously stoned. He bedded groupies though serially married. He once beat up singer-bassist Jack Bruce onstage when Bruce played during his drum solo. He was, producer Tony Palmer sums up, “probably the greatest drummer the world has ever known”.

It’s all insanely enjoyable. When Baker goes to Kenya to research the roots of drumming he gets detained by a love of – take a wild guess – polo. The hophead rocker becomes a VIP at the nobs-only Polo Club. He owns, or once did, 38 horses. You cannot square all the different Gingers, and that is the fun. There is the angry old man in Africa; the bright-eyed drummer of youth; the feral, hirsute stoner who looks as if he inspired the Muppets’ Animal; the surreal equestrian like some time-travelled Henry Fielding squire. Volatile, protean and hazardous to be with, Baker is a latter-day Viking, vide the recurring, playful animation sequences of a longship zigzagging oceans. But cinemas, like zoos, are privileged places. They let you marvel at dangerous animals from a safe vantage.

Hit men used to be dangerous too. But in movies they get ever cuddlier, especially when ageing towards retirement. In The Liability Tim Roth’s Roy is serving out his time with gun, grungy mac and a habit of volleying forlorn grins and wisdoms. Those are served to his young driver Adam (Jack O’Connell), an anxious innocent hired out to Roy by a gangster foster parent (Peter Mullan). The film goes nowhere much in affably elaborate patterns – like a deranged Satnav – and ends with a showdown in one of those wacky-photogenic locations chosen, you suspect, so cast and crew can send home eye-catching picture postcards.

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