Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY Is a Trainwreck, Old Sport


- The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books. I know a lot of people say that, but it's true. Even though it's been years since I last read it, the novel left the kind of impression on me where it's been in my brain ever since. Gatsby is that kind of book - the kind whose story and characters resonate ... but what really hits you is the imagery. The isolated Gatsby peering out across the water at the just-out-of-reach Daisy, the hints of crime and corruption and lies behind his mythic persona, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg staring over the city, casting judgement over those who pass beneath. For that reason, I went into the new Gatsby film pretty excited. For me, it seemed about time that a visuals-oriented director like Baz Luhrmann tackle the material. I remember, in high school, being shown the old Robert Redford / Mia Farrow version of  Gatsby, and just thinking it was all wrong. The colors, the pacing, the dialogue - everything felt so bland and straightforward. Gatsby needed flair, depth, texture. I was encouraged by what I saw from the trailers of Luhrmann's Gatsby. It seemed like he got that this was a story that needed a visually-dynamic, almost surrealist-bent in order to capture the essence of the book.

Well, as it turns out, I was very wrong. Luhrmann was not, it seems, the man for the job. Luhrmann's take on Gatsby is indeed - like his previous films - hyper visual and ultra-stylized. But here's the problem: it's all, 100% surface-level. The film is visually decadent, but there's absolutely no texture to it. And as the film goes on, it becomes a shockingly literal translation of the book - going so far as to have long stretches of dialogue and narration lifted verbatim, as the text from the novel is superimposed on the screen. The Great Gatsby - the book - is about metaphor, subtext, and images that are evocative not just of a time and place, but of an idea - the death of The American Dream. Nothing about the new movie version is evocative. In fact, it's a flat-out mess.

Now, don't tell me that such a book is untranslatable to film. Don't tell me that movies can't have subtext or depth or visual metaphor. Try telling that to the Coens or to P.T. Anderson (to name a few of the finest living filmmakers, whose best movies are the cinematic equivalents of the Great American Novel). But with this new film, Luhrmann proves that he shouldn't be put in the same category as those great directors. Yes, he can stage a party scene like nobody's business. And he makes the big party scenes in Gatsby into visual marvels that look, admittedly, pretty stunning (and really pop in 3D to boot). But that's literally the best part of Gatsby - the best scenes, by far, are two of its party scenes - one being Gatsby's extravagant affair at his decadent mansion, the other being a smaller and more sinister impromptu bit of debauchery in which Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan engage in some sinful behavior in a Manhattan apartment. These party scenes work because they are so visually dynamic, and they give the first hour or so of the film a real energy and amusement-park-ride style appeal. But reducing The Great Gatsby to being a Roaring Twenties (in 3D!) Cirque Du Soleil show just seems wrong. And even when it works, the temporary high of those scenes soon fizzles out. The movie can only sustain that circus-like energy for its first act. Soon afterwords, it becomes a talky, plodding soap opera with really nice colors. The last thing I thought I'd be with this film was bored, but for the entire second and third acts, that's exactly what I was.

The inexplicable literalism of the film is doubly frustrating because Luhrmann insists on doing his thing where he fills the movie with modern, anachronistic pop music instead of era-appropriate tunes. This honestly sort of drove me crazy here, because the movie *could* have found a way to cleverly modernize the story, or to use the music in a way that felt meaningful or thematically resonant. But it doesn't. It's not like in Inglorious Basterds, where David Bowie's "Cat People" hypnotically recasts Holocaust survivors as punk-rock revolutionaries. Tarantino is a guy who's used anachronistic music and other stylistic choices to enhance his historical films and give them richer meaning and context. Contrast that to The Great Gatsby. Is there any particular reason why Jay Z and Beyonce are the musical selections in the film (other than Jay Z being a producer)? Is there any real thematic resonance to the songs used? As far as I could see, no, there isn't. The effect is that, when a random group of guys drive through 1920's NYC blasting "99 Problems," it's an unintentionally funny / cringe-worthy moment that takes you out of the movie.

Point being: the stylistic choices in The Great Gatsby feel pretty much arbitrary and there just because, well, that's what Baz Luhrmann does.

As far as the actors go, I felt the performances were a decidedly mixed bag. I'm more or less a pretty big fan, in general, of all of the main players here. But I didn't enjoy the performances in this film all that much, for the most part. Strangely, the only one who seems to nail it is previously-unknown (to me at least) Elizabeth Debicki as the sly and elusive female golf pro Jordan Baker. Debicki brings a casual, lived-in quality to Jordan and the movie is much better when she's on-screen. I don't think it's any coincidence that once Jordan fades into the movie's background, the film suffers.

To that end, I didn't love either Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby or Tobey Maguire as Nick. It's weird, DiCaprio has been on an awesome-acting streak of late, most recently impressing in Django Unchained. But as Gatsby, I just didn't love his approach. It's so overdone and "actorly," but not in a particularly powerful or convincing manner. It feels like him doing a voice, but not necessarily fully inhabiting a character. My impression from the book was always that Gatsby is mysterious, dangerous, a man of the shadows. Once Leo makes his big entrance as Gatsby, he's just a complete scenery chewer. It felt way off to me, and was at times grating, at times boring. Same goes for Maguire as Nick. Nick is the ultimate everyman, but Maguire is just too eccentric-seeming and goofy to be a true everyman these days. His Nick is almost comically passive, with no real opinions and no real point of view. It makes the use of Nick's narration from the book that much more jarring - we're being told that Nick feels a certain way, but we're rarely shown anything on screen that backs it up. The fact that Luhrmann uses Nick's eventual stay in a mental health institution as a framing device adds to the disparity. Nick remains a total blank slate throughout the film, and he seems to barely possess an independent thought about anything that occurs in the movie - let alone enough material to put it all into book form, as Luhrmann has him do.

The rest of the cast faces similar challenges navigating through Luhrmann's alternately gaudy then drab dream-world. Carrie Mulligan seems to be giving it her all as iconic Daisy, yet the romance between her and Gatsby seems totally limp. Again, it all comes back to the fact that their relationship is colored in metaphor and imagery in the book, but in the movie, every thought that Gatsby has about Daisy is spelled out in exhaustive detail. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton's Tom becomes a gruff, debaucherous cartoon character. Edgerton is usually great, but he too seems confused about what tone he should be going for.

Over and over again, The Great Gatsby seems to swing wildly from one extreme to the other in terms of tone, visuals, and stylistic choices. Like I said, it's a mess. It sounds strange to write this, because in the past I've defended films for working on a purely visual level. But Gatsby undermines the power of its own visuals by rarely letting them speak for themselves. Everything feels underlined, bolded, and put on the screen in Size 32 font. By the time the movie was over, I came away with absolutely no thoughts on what it all meant, no ponderings about The American Dream, or the corrupting influence of wealth and power, or the lies America has told itself to create a perfect myth for itself. Sure, there are some surface-level allusions to the book's great themes, but it's all surface, all paper-thin. Even visually, there isn't much that really sticks with you - despite the heavy stylization, there's remarkably little sense of atmosphere to the film.

Maybe some will just get so caught up in the elaborate costumes and music-video-esque, highly choreographed party sequences that, hey, that's enough. But The Great Gatsby deserves better, and more so than that, this is just not a very good movie - with surprisingly little to say, given that it's based on a work that has stood the test of time precisely because it says so much. Like I said, I had hoped that the combination of Baz Luhrmann and The Great Gatsby would be a surprisingly potent combo. Instead, I am left feeling highly skeptical about a director who seems to just mangle source material sans rhyme or reason or vision.

My grade: C

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