Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby (*1/2)

Directed by Baz Luhrman


While watching the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I tried to imagine if I would think it was as much of a failure if I wasn't comparing it to the great American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, or by the two other failed film versions from 1949 and 1974. I don't want to fault this film by comparing it to one of the greatest novels of all time, but director Baz Luhrman makes this kind of thinking impossible, forever reminding you of the source material. It's like he can't help himself. Luhrman's films are usually sugary and melodramatic in nature, but his version of Gatsby is like diabetes on the screen. A two-hour stream of processed, synthetic images make its way across screen, each one vying for your attention with equal ferocity till your eyes get tired and you'd like a glass of water to cleanse your palette.

But anybody familiar with Luhrman shouldn't be surprised by this frenetic style. It's been his calling card since his first film, 1992's Strictly Ballroom and perfected with his two biggest hits: 1996's Romeo + Juliet and 2001's Moulin Rouge. I'm one of the few people in America that actually liked his 2007 film Australia, but even I admit that film was ridiculous in a pulpy, self-conscious sort of way (I think what I probably appreciated the most about it was how blatantly it pushed forward into it's quixotic goal to be some kind of Australian Gone With the Wind). Of course Luhrman would think that he was the man who'd be able to pump life into a film version of Gatsby, but the problem is that he confuses life with loud noises, cacophonous music and smash cuts galore. This version is definitely more lively than the previous adaptations, but it seems even less interested in the story than the previous story. Well, at least it doesn't seem to trust it much to hold the audience's attention.

The story should be familiar to anyone who went to an American high school, but just to recap: Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a boyish, Midwesterner takes the trip to New York with the hope of cashing in on the blooming Wall Street extravaganza of the Roaring 20's. He lives in a quaint house in East Egg, a residential area off Long Island, next to a mansion that apparently houses a mysterious moneymaker named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick's beautiful cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives in the swanky West Egg on the other side of the river with her rich but domineering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). In their home, Nick also meets famed golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a tall beautiful woman with an intimidating but infectious personality and a penchant for gossip. She also brings up the name of the mysterious Gatsby, a man famous for raucous parties in his home, but one that no one ever seems to actually see.

Even Nick, his neighbor, barely ever sees him. That is, until he is personally invited to Gatsby's home for the next big party. Nick roves through the many people inside the rich, eccentric home looking for the host, realizing quickly that he may be the first person ever who's actually been asked to show. Everyone else just comes on their own accord, Jordan explains to Nick. Everyone at the party has their own theory as to who Gatsby is, it comes as a surprise when Jay introduces himself casually to Nick on one of the building's many outdoor staircases*. Jay chums it up with Nick, invites him to lunches and they begin to become friends. It's at this point when Jay introduces a proposal to Nick: invite Daisy over for tea and help Jay rekindle a passionate romance that tragically ended five years earlier. With Jordan's help, Nick gets Daisy to come by for tea, where Gatsby and Daisy are reunited and their former romance comes flushing back into the present.

The central conflict of the film is whether Daisy will leave the brutish Tom for the romantic, but overly-idealistic Gatsby. Tom, aside from being an overall unpleasant fellow to begin with, also has an ongoing affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of a clueless mechanic named Wilson (Jason Clarke), that lives in the industrial, apocalyptic Valley of the Ashes (famously watched over by the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg). Tom oozes machismo and ego where Gatsby seems all about sincerity. Gatsby has trouble handling the thought of Daisy ever loving Tom, but one thing's for sure: Tom seems to laugh a whole lot more. This doomed love triangle spirals forward, with Nick watching on, telling his story in past tense from an asylum that he's checked into years after. This writing device seems a bit contrived, but I can only imagine that it was the best out of several far worse ideas.

Everyone here seems to be trying very hard. The cast seems put together formidably enough. Mulligan, Maguire, and Edgerton - playing the main pawns on Gatsby's chessboard - seem to have a great handle on the characters they play. Mulligan continues to shine in different kinds of roles, simultaneously playing Daisy as a woman whose shallowness knows no bounds, but is also wonderful enough to ruin your life for. Edgerton pumps Tom with such roided-out masculinity, it was like he was the only actor who knew how syrupy this movie was supposed to be. Tobey Maguire, forever cursed to play "boyish", does his best to play the story's narrator even when he's given nothing to do but stare longingly at Gatsby's grin. The film touches on the homoeroticism between Nick and Gatsby just enough to wonder why it isn't hit any harder. And Nick's incessant voiceover seems to do the last thing you'd want the film to do: remind you how much better the book is.

Leonardo DiCaprio might be the best Gatsby of all three film portrayals, not that that's saying much. Robert Redford seemed perfect for the role in the 1974 version, but much like the rest of the movie, the performance is comatose, hardened by the necessity to create a prestige film aesthetic. DiCaprio gives Gatsby a lot of vulnerability and nervousness, only slightly hidden behind the sharp-looking veneer. But DiCaprio has been going back to the well for so many performances lately, and it's starting to become apparent. How often must we see him slowly look up at the camera in extreme close-up? When it happens in this film, I could have sworn that it was just photoshopped footage from Shutter Island or Inception. I'd like someone to just throw him an Oscar already so we can finally see him open up his performance style. Remember how good he was in Catch Me If You Can? It's evidence that he can play looser, but Gatsby just continues his string of the super serious protagonist.

But I feel like the cast here is actually interested in these characters, but Luhrman turns the story into cotton candy - sweet but ultimately weightless. This is by far my least favorite Baz Luhrman movie, and it probably doesn't help that Gatsby is one of my favorite books. It's a difficult story to adapt to cinema. So much of the book's power comes from its ethereal prose spoken from a narrator who's not only biased, but seems incapable to see Gatsby's shortcomings, even when they're right in front of his face. It took a sledgehammer to a time when it seemed like everyone was happy, and showed that happy endings were only for the movies - which is why this isn't meant to be a movie. That Luhrman tries to defy that by shooting it in 3D and pumping in songs from Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray seems to further prove the point that this just isn't a story for the silver screen.

*Jay's introduction is one of the film's biggest blunders. In the novel, it's incredibly endearing how Gatsby is able to slip into the story in such a humble, non-obtrusive way. Of course, Buhrman shows us Gatsby just as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" crescendos and fireworks explode obnoxiously behind him. Not that the film needed to completely copy the book's process, but the way Luhrman does it seems to betray Gatsby's entire character. 

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