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The Great Gatsby (2013)

May 11, 2013

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written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

produced by: Baz Luhrmann, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Martin & Catherine Knapman

directed by: Baz Luhrmann

rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language)

runtime: 143 min.

U.S. release date: May 10, 2012

 

The best scene in “The Great Gatzby”, Baz Luhrmann’s spectacle leaden adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great American Novel’, away from the pulsing soundtrack and rollicking parties flowing with booze, floating confetti and dazzling fireworks. It takes place in the second half of the movie, on a sizzling summer day at the Plaza Hotel, where all the main characters are gathered in a stuffy hotel suite. This is the rare time in the movie where confrontation occurs and motivations revealed. It’s what I consider the emotionally potent climax of the film. Unfortunately, everything before and after that scene is all pomp with very little circumstance or emotional investment.

That was partly what Fitzgerald was getting at though, undoubtedly with more artistry than Luhrmann and his use of miniatures, CGI and 3D could muster apparently. It’s natural for a writer/director to diverge from the source material when adapting a literary classic to the big-screen, some changes can be necessary, even welcome. But I can’t recall another movie that had me feeling so ambivalent about the story and most of the characters.

Luhrmann’s version opens up in a sanitarium, where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is being treated for being “morbidly alcoholic”. That’s what he’s left with after spending time with the crowd he’s about to reflect upon by way of therapeutic memoir. His writing takes us into the summer of 1922, which finds Young Nick (when does Maguire not look young?), importing himself from the Midwest to New York with the hope of making a fortune on Wall Street. He rents a home in West Egg (a fictional village in Long Island), right next to an obnoxious mansion owned by the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws opulent and raucous parties in his mansion almost every night. Personally, I would’ve rented elsewhere.

Carraway is soon sucked into the posh and luxurious life of Gatsby, which is how he picks up a drinking habit and how he’s come to be impacted so by such an enigmatic figure. He learns that Gatsby’s estate is in direct line of sight (follow the green light) of his cousin’s home across the bay. That’s where Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) resides with her overbearing husband Tom (a fine Joel Edgerton “Warrior”), a racist brute who has afternoon delights with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), unbeknownst to her husband Scott (Jason Clarke), a sickly mechanic – more on those two in a second.

 

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Nick also learns how Gatsby has acquired his wealth by way of shady dealings with local gangster Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), all with the hope of attracting Daisy with all his bling and glitz. You see, he has it in his head that he can recreate the past – his former fling with Daisy in particular. Nick calls it hopeful. I call it delusional. As Gatsby succeeds in luring an overwhelmed Daisy, everyone inevitably merges, culminating in a tragic collision of melodramatic mope.

I’m laying it on a bit thick and likely ruffling some feathers for those who cherish these literary characters. The thing is, these are hollow caricatures, as opposed to real people with identifiable emotions and feelings. Therefore, it’s extremely difficult to care for any of them, but I blame Luhrmann for that. Instead of focusing on the sound and vision of his movie, he and his fellow Aussie collaborator and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce (“Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!”) could’ve focused more on who these people are, instead of everything around them.

There are interesting threads to examine in this story, just don’t tell Luhrmann that – he’ll have none of it. That a seemingly self-made man can cause such a stir among the elite upper class could have been a timeless examination of societal gossip. But the real story is who Gatsby is, why he’s thrown such decadent parties every night and how he can rise and fall among those who worshipped his name. Unfortunately, the revelations of the titular character in “Gatsby” are played too fast. The result is a delusional and selfish man, unable to come to terms with his own emptiness. That may well be what Fitzgerald was getting at, but he certainly granted readers more than what Luhrmann offers viewers here.

 

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One of the few characters I found intriguing was Daisy’s golfer friend, Jordan Baker (splendidly played by Australian newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki), who is thrust upon Nick as a love interest early on. Debicki’s portrays a confident young woman who would rather matter-of-factly fill Nick in on Gatsby’s rumored past than engage in any romance. Sadly, she’s a supporting character that Lurhmann dissolves into the background. It’s obvious what he’s concerned with.

George and Myrtle Wilson are the two characters I found most interesting in this film adaptation. Clarke (so great in the recent “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Fisher (also great in last year’s “Bachelorette”) play supporting characters who reside in the Valley of Ashes, a disparate area that one must travel through between New York City and Long Island. They’re the only two who come across as real people. Imagine what they’ve witnessed as the elite drive back and forth, from their posh homes on Long Island Sound to the big city. Imagine what they’ve overheard as the upper class have their gas pumped. I wish the story would’ve been told from the perspective of these two, instead of the bland Carraway (of course, that is likely the miscast Maguire’s fault). But that’s just not how the story pans out. Still, these two actors offer more realism and depth in the short time they’re on-screen than any of the main characters.

That could be a problem, but it makes sense I suppose. It’s not that DiCaprio, Mulligan and Maguire aren’t capable actors – we know better than that. They just seem to flounder with the material here, despite their best attempts. Granted what they have to work with isn’t all that engaging. DiCaprio is a natural charmer, so playing Gatsby isn’t much of a stretch. In fact, his work here feels like an amalgam of other characters we’ve seen him portray over the years. At this point in his career, as he approaches 40, I’d advise some kind of re-invention for Leo.

The hardest role goes to Mulligan though, who must work within the limitations of a the vapid Daisy, a woman who is basically a vessel, void of personality. It seems like such an unfavorable stereotype of a role for any actress (Mia Farrow came off as gratingly annoying in the 1974 version) and considering I generally like Mulligan, watching her pout, daydream and lounge around was a let down. Daisy is also a mother, unsurprisingly lacking any maternal fiber, at least in this translation. Why bother with that? What does that tell us about her that we don’t already know?  Ultimately, you have two fine actors, in DiCaprio and Mulligan, at the mercy of Lurhmann, who is many things but definitely not an actor’s director.

Which is why that tense scene in the hotel suite works. The only eye candy that Luhrmann has to play with there is the talent. Too bad we’re not given more scenes like that. We might actually feel something for these characters.

 

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Instead what we’re left with is a movie heavy on visually extravagance. The cinematography by Simon Duggan (“Knowing” and “Live Free or Die Hard”) showcases a kaleidoscope of colors and bright lights with shimmering jewels. The costumes by Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife, who’s worked on many of his films) are eye-catching and elegant.  Despite all this production talent, Luhrmann’s film comes across as repetitive and over-reaching.

The collaboration of composer Craig Armstrong (“Moulin Rouge!”) and rap star Jay-Z for the soundtrack doesn’t help either. I’m used to Luhrmann using anachronistic music in his movies, thoroughly enjoy it even, but even though it’s not as predominant here, it still took me out of the period. Some of the music works, like U2 and Amy Winehouse, but every other modern tune stands out as a distraction. It winds up making the movie feel like a fashion show.

There are some who are determined to see “Gatsby”. They are either fans of the novel, of DiCaprio, or of Luhrmann’s work, maybe even fans of the time period. To them I say see it in 3D to get the full effect of the movie. It may not be unnecessary (and at times distracting), but it’s used in both absorbing and riveting ways.

Fitzgerald’s tale of the Jazz Age, benefitted from its timely release back in the Roaring Twenties. But a story about the travails of rich young white folk just doesn’t hold much resonance nowadays. It’s old hat to see the entitled, the privileged and the racists of Old and New Wealth sit around and either whine about their lives or indulge in excess to disguise who they really are. Every decade we see this and unless it’s portrayed with a new angle or in a different light, it simply comes across as all too familiar and frankly, very annoying.

For some, this ‘Great American Novel’ is their all-time favorite novel. It’s an absorbing work, not so much for its characters, but moreso in how it is written, with a lyrical prose that reads like poetry. But it doesn’t transfer well to the big-screen. It never has. The story is too internalized and contemplative to have the same impact that the novel does.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2017 3:08 am

    Saw this when it opened. Had low expectations because of movie critics who obviously grew up in the wrong era. The quality of the book is revived perfectly; It’s a period peace, but transcends period with its subtle hints of modern music and style. Every actor was perfectly cast. It’s heavy use of Art Deco (my favorite architectural style) fills the screen with beauty that reaches for the heavens, however unattainable they were and still are. Gatsby looks to the past not with nostalgia, but with regret of what was and what will never be.

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