Worth A Look: 2.7%
Pretty Bad: 24.32%
Total Crap: 5.41%
4 reviews, 13 user ratings
|Great Gatsby, The (2013)
by Brett Gallman
Paring F. Scott Fitzgerald with Baz Luhrmann sounds like a match made in either heaven or hell. After all, few directors seem better qualified to capture Jazz Age extravagance better than the Aussie auteur; however, the necessary restraint and elegance to reign in the bombast have typically eluded him, so one would be forgiven for assuming that he might revel in the excess and fail to match Fitzgerald’s savage cynicism. While this worst-case scenario largely proves to be unfounded, this adaptation still proves to be a purgatorial effort that doesn’t quite forge its own identity—for better or worse, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and the result is every bit as overstuffed and turgid as that mouthful of a description entails.Luhrmann’s almost slavish reverence to the source material is revealed early on, as he insists on retaining Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as the story’s narrator (a decision that will eventually haunt much of the film). Not content to present him as Fitzgerald’s jaded, Midwestern outsider simply recounting his experiences, Luhrmann commits him to a sanitarium, where he’s become a shell-shocked survivor of the Lost Generation. Now a depressed, neurotic alcoholic, Carraway pounds out his story on a typewriter as a form of catharsis—just in case you didn’t get it.
"The beautiful and the damned."
Within minutes, it’s obvious that subtlety is set to be covered over by so much production design and visual splendor, as CGI snowflakes dance outside of Carraway’s window. In the hands of James Joyce, snow once became a symbol of grace; here, it’s a prelude to the general gracelessness with which Luhrmann handles one of the world’s most supple novels (coincidentally, Carraway discards a copy of “Ulysses” when he decides to set writing aside for stock broking).
However, it also provides a hint that such an approach might work; for all its superfluity, the added frame story provides evidence of Luhrmann’s visual acumen—here is Nick Carrraway in his winter of discontent, attempting to recall the bustling, sweltering summer of 1922, where his wide-eyed dreams of big city success were dashed by his entanglements with New York City’s opulent upper crust. Upon moving next door to the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), he’s drawn into an irresistible world whose seedy underbelly isn’t immediately recognizable. Only when he begins to peel away the layers of Gatsby’s façade does he realize its hollowness.
If nothing else, “The Great Gatsby” replicates that experience rather faithfully. Our introduction to Luhrmann’s Jazz Age is intoxicating and replete with his expected stylistic flourishes, such as anachronistic musical choices and a blazing visual style that swings to life with a restless camera. His compositions are big, bold, and engrossing as he engages on a swift travelogue to relay the story’s infamous geography; there’s an early, stunning shot that deftly highlights the visual contrast between the hellish Valley of Ashes and its more affluent surroundings. It might be obvious and on the nose, but it’s so succinct and cinematic that it leaves little doubt about the film’s aesthetic sensibilities. Luhrmann knows that they were called the Roaring Twenties for a reason.
As the film becomes more enclosed and intimate, it continues to soar with a hint of unease. Gatsby’s parties are an explosion of gauche extravagance, with Fitzgerald’s words serving as an already gaudy foundation. Luhrmann piles on bricks of overindulgence: overblown fireworks fill the sky as a writhing throng engages in a form of revelry that’s both infectious and revolting all at once. It plays very much like the recollections of a now clinically jaded man attempting to reconcile his fondness with his disgust. As such, the proceedings are often disconcertingly choreographed and awash in an obviously digital sheen that hints at the artifice of it all, particularly the enigmatic host himself, who has staged these gatherings in the hopes of alluring his long lost love, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).
Such a revelation is old hat to anyone who survived high school English, but those experiencing “Gatsby” for the first time here will find it hard to miss since Luhrmann insists on leaving nothing unsaid, including several flowing passages of Fitzgerald’s prose. He’s so beholden to it that having Maguire recite the narration isn’t enough, so the words literally crawl onto the screen as part of his many visual flourishes.
The desire to retain Fitzgerald’s words is understandable (they’re only among some of the most beautiful in the English language), but their literal leap to the big screen are often excessive and redundant momentum killers. Nick’s intrusions dilute Buhrmann’s innate cinematic strengths; it’s better to show rather than tell, and it seems like he’d like to somehow do both here. While such excess seems appropriate, it keeps the film from truly roaring. The first half especially becomes a collection of montages that mashes up MTV Jams with the Jazz Age, with the unholy union unfolding to a staccato rhythm that diffuses throughout the film.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film finally shows signs of life when Luhrmann reclines to the background and allows his cast to take the lead. Once Gatsby arranges his fateful meeting with Daisy, this adaptation finally becomes something resembling an actual movie where characters actually begin to connect and interact in their own skewed way. However twisted it may be, it’s refreshingly human and minimalist after the aesthetic assault of the previous hour.
Watching the cracks form in Gatsby’s carefully put-on façade as he encounters Daisy for the first time in five years is affecting because Luhrmann and company don’t shy away from the comedic awkwardness of the situation. DiCaprio fumbles about like a flustered teenage boy with a crush and captures the arrested development of an entire generation in the process. It’s an almost startling moment that finds the humanity in all of this, which is no small feat since even Fitzgerald himself seems more concerned with the symbolic implications of his characters rather than the characters themselves.
That shows in this film, too, since it affords few other moments like that, so it’s a testament to the cast that the climactic drama works at all. For much of the film, everyone seems to be locked into a detached orbit with each other before fate puts them on a collision course.
DiCaprio is the center of gravity as the disarming and mysterious Gatsby, a man whose confidence never seems as surefire as he’d have you believe. Perpetually stuffed into big suits, he seems like an adolescent pretending to be a grown-up, which might be Gatsby’s defining quality. I’m not so sure he’s an idealist so much as he’s just a teenager trapped in a man’s body, and DiCaprio nails this aspect.
Surrounding him is an adequately pitched ensemble. Mulligan is appropriately vapid and disconnected as the horribly shallow Daisy, a woman who similarly never evolved from her debutante status. Even five years of marriage and parenthood haven’t matured her beyond a creature that’s impressed by cool shirts and other luxuries. Her husband Tom is no less superficial and is in fact a virulent racist brought to beady-eyed, brutish life by Joel Edgerton.
Other characters feel like afterthoughts for much of the film, including Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), a gregarious floozy married to a mechanic (Jason Clarke in a primal, melodramatic performance). As inhabitants of the Valley of Ashes, this duo brings a hothouse, almost Sirkian flavor to the film that stands in contrast to the regal debauchery of their Long Island counterparts.
Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki just sort of hangs out as Jordan Baker, a golfing acquaintance that threatens to steal the show during her limited screen-time. In Fitzgerald’s novel, she’s also Nick’s girlfriend, but Maguire’s Carraway is an asexual blank slate. If he’s fascinating at all, it’s due to the added frame story that renders him an even more unreliable narrator. His lionizing of Gatsby now reads as a desperate attempt to cling to his sanity and make sense of a tumultuous episode in his life. When he completes his manuscript and insists on calling it “The Great Gatsby,” it’s done without the irony and sarcasm we associate with Fitzgerald’s title.
Does this mean Luhrmann misses the point? Not exactly—after all, Gatsby has always been something of a tragic figure, the corrupted American Dream writ large, a man supposedly worth more “than the whole damn bunch” of those with whom he cavorts. This film just seems to insist on it more forcefully, even if its Gatsby isn’t as above-it-all as Nick would like to believe. Something about that desperation rings true though.
In the 88 years since the novel’s original release, the American Dream has become more distorted, so it follows that Luhrmann would amplify that dismay and project it onto a man on the verge of a breakdown. This Nick Carraway seems like someone who doesn’t just see Gatsby as a victim—he needs to make Gatsby a martyr for the sins of the Jazz Age.
As such, Luhrmann conceives “The Great Gatsby” as the parable that Fitzgerald always intended, only it’s blown up to nearly mythic proportion. His Gatsby is yet another star-crossed lover meted out a cruel fate that’s perhaps half-warranted. Still, he can’t help but romanticize him as a hopeless optimist—even in the throes of death, this Gatsby is sure that Daisy’s voice is waiting for him on the other end of the phone. He expires with a sense of hope that seems admirable rather than foolishly, hopelessly empty, and Luhrmann’s conclusion strikes an odd tone from Fitzgerald’s more ambivalent prose. It’s indignant, melancholy, and optimistic all at once as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock becomes a symbol for the faint, unreachable past and all of its dreams.
Despite its universal resonance, “The Great Gatsby” can’t escape the shadow of the American Dream, the recurring theme of 2013 so far. Whereas “Spring Breakers” and “Pain & Gain” updated with black-hearted, absurdist variations on the theme, “The Great Gatsby” reminds us that those films were simply mutating the DNA that Fitzgerald embedded in the American narrative decades ago. What is James Franco’s Alien but another Gatsby flinging shirts at vacuous girls? What are Michael Bay’s meathead criminals but other victims of the darker side of capitalistic impulses?
Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” may feel like a perfunctory reminder in the wake of those more invigorating efforts, but it’s still potent in light of its frequent inertia and obviousness. It’s a film that seems easy to write off as a perfect reflection of its source material because it’s full of surface affectations; however, one can hardly accuse Luhrmann of bringing only style since Fitzgerald provides the substance.The former might be one of the latter’s “careless people” prone to smashing up things with a reckless style, but he leaves a compelling mess scattered about.
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23937&reviewer=429
originally posted: 05/11/13 18:21:07
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