Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby

by Adam Riske
Find a nice quiet room. Turn on four stereos, each playing different styles of music. Now invite over 500 people who have been drinking all day and doing speed all night. Pick the most boring person of the bunch and ask them to read you The Great Gatsby. This, my friends, is what the first 30 minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby feels like. I wanted an ejector seat. It felt like Vietnam. Then a miracle happens. The movie settles down and while never becoming good, it ceases to be terrible.

The Great Gatsby is a movie where the director’s vision is at odds with the source material and an earnest cast. It reminds me of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables in that way. Credit to Baz Luhrmann for really going for it, as he always does. It’s just that his take on "going for it" is often tone deaf and always excessive. He’s a lot of imagination with no discipline.
The plot in brief: Writer and bond salesman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) comes to New York City during the height of the roaring '20s – excess, drinking, jazz music, etc. Nick moves next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her brutish husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick identifies with and admires Gatsby and the two soon become BFFs. Gatsby uses Nick to get back together with Daisy, who just so happens to be the love of Gatsby’s life. Tom doesn’t like this, and that’s when the shit gets real.

The main criticism of The Great Gatsby has to do with the way it is shot: this is the first movie I can recall that I saw in 2D that felt like it was in 3D (may G-D have mercy on your soul if you actually see it in 3D). It looks like The Aviator if it were shot in High Frame Rate, which makes the actors feel removed from their surroundings. There’s also a lot of motion blurs near the beginning, also a side effect of the 3D. It’s most pronounced when Luhrmann is tracking or dissolving into new shots. It’s a major problem, because the camera is almost never still during the first half of the movie.

The anachronistic use of hip-hop music is random and unnecessary. It’s clear the intent is to modernize the material, but why not then set the story in present day? As it is, the music distracts more than anything. Sure, it injects energy, but in a way where you’re just questioning if Luhrmann understands the material or rather is making The Great Gatsby plot line fit his usual parade.
Luhrmann seems to have no real grasp of what makes Gatsby succeed as a book. A lot has to do with themes and prose, but this is what he does the least successfully in his adaptation. I’m not sure if he (as a co-writer) adapted the text or took it straight from the book, but the way it is presented and narrated make it all sound like functional dialogue or clumsy ruminations of a teenage boy who thinks he’s very deep.

In terms of themes, the book is definitely in part a critique on the decadent lifestyle of the wealthy and of classicism overall, but that never comes across in the movie. By the end, Carraway is supposed to be sickened by it all but it never feels that way. It seems thrown in because it’s a plot beat from the story. All of the themes that stuck with me from the movie were related to romance; too bad the romance is pretty flat due to an utter lack of any chemistry between Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. Aspects of the plot -- like Gatsby being an obsessive and a criminal -- are touched on but glossed over.
The performances are strong when they’re not getting swallowed by the director’s style. Leonardo DiCaprio is allowed to be charming, skittish and na├»ve on top of his usual brooding. Carey Mulligan makes a functional Daisy. The character is a dolt and she plays her appropriately. Tobey Maguire has the most trouble of the leads; he’s neither a very natural narrator nor a charismatic leader to follow through the movie. The best performance probably comes from Joel Edgerton. He’s very arch, but there’s a certain forcefulness about him that makes you perk up when he’s onscreen.

Unlike, say, Michael Bay, I think Baz Luhrmann’s heart is in the right place. Both are artists of strong worldviews and whatever material they tackle ends up being more about the creator than the creation. The problem with Baz is that he’s sort of inept at telling a story and for a man so in love with romances, his romances never come to life. I hope he has a really good movie in him one of these days. I don’t know. Shouldn’t he have had one by now?

10 comments:

  1. Glad you liked it Adam. I like DiCaprio, Mulligan and Maguire all right. But man, Baz Luhrmann hasn't made anything I even remotely like since "Strictly Ballroom" (Paul Mercurio for the win! ;-P) with "Australia" being the most tolerable of his recent movies in a Douglas Sirk-on-crack sort-of way. The man may have a heart as you say, but he also tries to substitute story and character with style, style and more style wrapped inside an MTV music video aesthetic that, frankly, makes me nauseous. Someone actually asked me to go see "Great Gatsby" with her, and normally I would jump at a chance for a free movie in Gotham (average non-matinee ticket price: $13.25). Being a Luhrmann movie though I gladly waved my hand and said to this person 'Enjoy yourself.'

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  2. ARiske-

    I think I liked GATSBY more than you; I left liking it. There were a lot of things that felt right, like the look of the characters and the house party scenes.

    We've talked about anachronistic hip-hop already, but I'll repeat it here for the posterity of the comments: hip-hop in movies set before, I don't know, the 70s, only takes the audience out of the movie.

    **SPOILERS**
    The hip-hop in GATSBY doesn't work because the broad messages of hip-hop and Jay Gatsby are completely at odds with each other. Hip-hop (broadly speaking) is about realism and acknowledging the very real difficulties of the world. Jay Gatsby doesn't want to deal with reality at all; he wants to perpetually live in fantasy and artifice. Those two things don't work! You're subverting the message of one when using the other. The usage of hip-hop either to broadly appeal to a large audience or to make an elementary one-to-one correlation of "Jay Gatsby is a gangster so we should use hip-hop" ends up somewhere substantial on the spectrum of dunderheaded crassness. Sigh.

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  3. Was it at least better than the Redford/Farrow version (Zzzzzzz)?

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    1. Couldn't say because I haven't seen the Redford version. The new Great Gatsby is not boring.

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  4. Luhrmann's flamboyant style is so prominent, I was really concerned that the narrative could be completely ruined. The excessiveness is there, the parties, the generous flowers from Gatsby, the wording going across the screen toward the end. But I think unlike "Romeo + Juliet", the tension felt more natural to the storyline. And how about that Gatsby entrance from DiCaprio? Wow, was laughably camp and awesome. Also, I liked the disquieting settling of the end that seemed to fit the novel's conclusion as well. There's room to nitpick, but I think Luhrmann captured the essence of the story and I was entertained.

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    Replies
    1. I liked DiCaprio's entrance in the movie because it closed the anarchy of the first 30 minutes for me.

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    2. Anarchy is a good way to put it, there was a wildness to the first part of the film, and I could see how it could be a turn off. Also, good call on the call on the music. I liked the hip-hop overlaying the party scenes, but it did immediately take me out of the movie-going experience.

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    3. The music cues were just nuts at times. I'm thinking specifically when Tom Buchanan hits his mistress and Baz Luhrmann cuts to a guy playing the trumpet on a fire escape. Even worse was when Gatsby and Carraway are driving to the city and there's a car full of people listening and dancing to H to the Izzo like they had satellite radio and it was a party bus.

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    4. Hmmm...trying to think of a movie where anachronistic music was used effectively. A Knight's Tale? Ha!

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  5. I haven't seen this one, but it sounds like Baz is using the same strategy he used for Moulin Rouge! Make the first act so batshit crazy that when things settle down, you're grateful just for the film not beating you upside the head. It's the cinematic equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome.

    Full disclosure: I love Moulin Rouge - perhaps therapy is in order...

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