Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: "The Great Gatsby"

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Runtime: 142 minutes

I was lucky to see an unfinished cut of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby way back in November of last year. The screening, which had unfinished VFX and temporary soundtrack selections, occurred only a month or so after the film was pushed from its original Christmas 2012 opening. Despite fearing for the worst, I ended up enjoying the relatively incomplete cut, and looked forward to the final version. Nearly half a year later, and I'm able to breathe a sigh of relief. My opinion of Luhrmann's film is basically unchanged, for better and for worse. Just as it was in November, this new Gatsby is littered with various and sundry flaws, yet builds to a mostly strong finish thanks to Luhrmann's surprising ability to tone himself down.

As far as the story is concerned, not much has been changed by Luhrmann or co-writer Craig Pearce. The only notable addition is that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story's wallflower narrator, is writing the story from the confines of a sanitarium. Other than that, it's the same story most of us read in high school with varying degrees of interest and/or boredom. Nick moves to West Egg next to the mysterious Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and must deal with Gatsby's attempts to win back his former flame Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Framing device aside, this take on Fitzgerald's novel has little in plotting that will enrage fanatical literary purists. The outrage is more likely to stem from Luhrmann's glitzy treatment of the Jazz Age, though even that anger feels slightly misdirected.

Those familiar with Luhrmann's films (or at least Moulin Rouge!) know that the director isn't one for subtlety or low energy. As such, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the film is frenetically edited, and that the visual design is opulent to the nth degree (credit should go to production/costume designer Catherine Martin, who has outdone herself). Fitzgerald explicitly condemned the empty decadence of the Roaring Twenties. Luhrmann dresses it up with stunning costumes and an eclectic soundtrack that blends contemporary pop and hip-hop with music from the novel's era.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as completely missing the point, but I can only partially agree. Yes, Luhrmann doesn't harshly condemn the wild excess of the elites of the day. Yet by applying a grandiose music-video style to the parties, Gatsby's parties feel relevant for a modern audience. A more accurate depiction of a party from the era would be nothing short of off-putting strictly from a viewing experience. Luhrmann wants his audience to have their cake and eat it too, and he partially gets away with it. Above all else, he succeeds in capturing the time period infinitely better than the more "accurate" vision seen in the soul-crushingly dull 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

Even with the social satire pushed to the background, many of the themes of Fitzgerald's novel still come through, even as Luhrmann puts Gatsby and Daisy's romance front and center. Mulligan's Daisy is almost more complex on screen, as she shifts from exaggerated air-head to doomed romantic and back again. Mulligan occasionally gets stuck with some stiff dialogue, yet she largely overcomes this and creates a nuanced portrait of vapid indecisiveness. Joel Edgerton (as Daisy's brutish husband Tom) lands some similarly stiff dialogue, yet builds his character into an engaging, albeit one-note, antagonist. Side characters have little to do, yet have their fleeting moments to shine. Isla Fisher is giving it her all as the flamboyant Myrtle, though she barely has anything to do other than pout and party. More successful is Aussie newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as the mysterious (and very lanky) golfing star Jordan Baker, who plays a key role in the early part of the story. Debicki's character has been slightly downsized (mainly in the story's second half), but the actress remains fully present even when all she has to do is cautiously shift her glance amid the melodrama.

But no Gatsby adaptation can be a real success if the titular role is pulled off. And, even with his somewhat dodgy accent, DiCaprio rightfully walks away with the film. The pull between who Gatsby is and who he wants to be is palpable, but never hammered home. For all of Luhrmann's visual excess, he has managed to give his performers moments to poke through the pumped-up visual artifice. The lone exception is Tobey Maguire. In fairness, the role of Nick Carraway is hardly a juicy role to begin with. However, Maguire is ill-served as the too-mild-for-his-own-good Nick. Having the character narrate portions of the film with direct passages from the novel doesn't help matters, and often breaks up the flow of the emotional developments.

For all that Luhrmann gets right (work with his cast, entertaining visuals and sounds, some solid understated humor), his writing work often leaves something to be desired. While The Great Gatsby feels more coherent than Australia (which, though enjoyable, was trying to be three or four different movies), it sometimes moves with fits and starts. As much as the visual ticks (text on the screen, dissolves, layered images, etc...) liven the material, they sometimes rob moments of what little impact they were aiming for. 

Thankfully, Luhrmann calms down once Gatsby and Daisy reconnect, and the second half boasts some scenes that are genuinely compelling, even in their melodramatic execution. As easy as it would be for me to dismiss the film as shallow fun, I was surprised that, even on a second viewing, I still found myself connecting with Gatsby's journey. It's not exactly a Greek tragedy (even Luhrmann wouldn't stretch Fitzgerald's prose that much), but even when the film built to its conclusion, I found myself stirred by the presentation, even if it was only an inch below skin-deep in terms of actual depth. For all of the missteps (big and small) along the way, Luhrmann's film is quite easily the best adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel. By playing to the narrative (the rekindled romance aspect), rather than the more general social critique, Luhrmann does what a director should be free to do with adaptations: make the material his own. Luhrmann doesn't need to make an adaptation that can act as a perfect narrative and thematic substitute for the book. That's what the actual book is for in the first place. 

Grade: B-

1 comment:

Lights Camera Reaction said...

Nice review! I gave it a C+

I think the film works best when it calms down (although the party scenes are impressive to look at).

The editing was pretty awful though haha.