REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

15 06 2013

Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition (Opening Film)

I found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby” completely captivating and relevant in 11th grade English.  However, I acknowledge that plenty of people may have had the Jazz Age classic spoiled by poor instruction or a general classroom environment.

For all those people who think classic literature has to be boring and stuffy, let me introduce you to Baz Luhrmann, the world’s coolest English teacher.  He takes antiquated texts like Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and reinterprets them for a modern audience, breathing new life into them in the process.  Though some scoff at the idea of combining Fitzgerald and Fergie or jazz and Jay-Z,  it’s that kind of madness that makes Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” such a delightfully fresh take on an old favorite.

It’s Luhrmann on all cylinders firing, which is the source of the film’s vibrant strengths.  On the other hand, it’s also the root of the film’s biggest flaws.  Though “The Great Gatsby” is brilliantly refashioned in the image of “Moulin Rouge,” it’s sometimes a little too pumped up for its own good.  Putting Fitzgerald on steroids comes with some loss of subtlety, particularly in the form of his recurring motifs: the green light and Dr. T.J. Ecklenburg’s eyes.  Rather than letting them sneak up on you, Luhrmann hits you over the head with them like a sledgehammer as if to say, “PAY ATTENTION! THESE ARE REALLY IMPORTANT!”

Gatsby

The acting also fails to fully connect; it’s stunted and borderline theatrical thanks to Luhrmann’s visual grandiosity.  Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as he’s probably the only actor today who could possibly give adequate presence and weight to Jay Gatsby while also maintaining his aura of mystique.  He’s also coming off a string of films (“J. Edgar,” “Inception,” “Shutter Island,” and “Revolutionary Road“) where screaming to the point of laughable red-facedness has become the norm, and his Gatsby sadly starts to succumb to becoming just another DiCaprio sourpuss.

I suppose Tobey Maguire is adequate as the wallflower narrator Nick Carraway; after all, his job is to just blend in and observe.  Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, is not at the top of her game as Daisy Buchanan.  There’s not an ounce of nuance or sensitivity in her performance, and a very delicate character in Fitzgerald’s novel comes off as a flighty, floozy socialite.  Joel Edgerton is phenomenal, though, as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s rugged rascal of a husband.  He effortlessly oozes entitlement and self-satisfaction, perfectly bringing to life Fitzgerald’s excoriation of Old Money in 1920s New York.

Luhrmann nails this criticism in his “The Great Gatsby,” portraying the ridiculous opulence and luxury in East Egg.  Vast fields for playing polo and magically flowing curtains aplenty make the hollowness of their lifestyle unmistakable.  But Fitzgerald was also careful not to lionize the new money of the West Egg, not letting them off without a free pass.  Gatsby was not necessarily to be taken at face value, not a hero through and through.

In this version, Jay Gatsby is put on quite the pedestal.  His majestic entrance to a fireworks bonanza and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (a fantastic allusion to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”) immediately establishes him as a figure of mythic proportions.  Though DiCaprio ultimately succeeds in humanizing him, Gatsby’s notorious parties are just pure displays of wealth and excess.  Not unlike Luhrmann’s films themselves, they lure you in with glitz and glamour and wow you with style and presentation.

That’s not to say that “The Great Gatsby” (or any of the director’s films) are just vapid spectacle with nothing beyond entertainment value.  Perhaps better than anyone else working today, Luhrmann tracks the iterations of stories and sensations over time.  He then finds a miraculous way to harmoniously fuse them, primarily through the juxtaposition of music and image.

Paradigmatic of this skill is the scene in the film where Nick and Tom get drunk in his New York City apartment to the tune of dubstep hit “I Can’t Stop.”  It captures the indescribable feeling of intoxication in all its excitement and wooziness.  Though the song is anachronistic, it reaches with a modern audience in a way that nothing coming from a diegetic gramophone ever could.

Though the characters and prose of “The Great Gatsby” might elude Baz Luhrmann’s full comprehension, he certainly never loses the feeling of the work.  His transposition of Fitzgerald to the big screen is respectful enough while also maximizing the sensory capabilities of the medium.  You could never hear Gatsby and Daisy rekindling their old flame to the tune of Lana Del Rey singing the haunting “Young & Beautiful” reading a book.  But now thanks to Luhrmann, it’s going to be tough to think of their romance without humming that melody.  B2halfstars

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