Friday, May 17, 2013

The Great Gatsby

*** out of ****
I am one of those horrible people who have never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I have, however, read the novelization of Back to the Future Part II, which gave me great insight on the character structure that exists beneath a film. So I will not be making any comparisons –or even guesses as to how true an adaptation Baz Luhrmann’s new movie is to the literary classic. I will only be addressing its merits as a standalone movie… and how interesting a future novelization might be. If there is one, it should be called “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Leonardo DiCaprio."

What is important to know about my perspective, is that I am a Baz Luhrmann fan. I see all of his movies and feel the manic impact of his excessive stylization as though I am attending a crazy party filled with a wild bunch caricatures. I feel the rush but wonder if I want to stay. Then there comes a moment in which I meet someone at the party with whom I connect. This is the first Luhrmann party when that moment never came. So instead I sat in the corner and enjoyed the spectacle alone.

Some people have told me that they feel this way about all Luhrmann films. Many people hate them and feel so assaulted by his in-your-face cinema, that they might as well be watching a Michael Bay movie. I have always defended the director. I feel that his extreme choices are those of a creative visionary with big ideas that always have a theory or a dream behind them.

Like his Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia (Yes, I like that one too), Gatsby dabbles in strange music choices and deliberately heavy theatrics. I loved it when Quentin Tarantino once said, during an interview with Elvis Mitchell, that English-speaking audiences feel too “sophisticated” for melodrama these days. While over-the-top drama may remove an audience from the feeling of reality, there is still an art to it and I believe that this is what Luhrmann’s work is all about.

In this telling of The Great Gatsby, Tobey Maguire portrays Nick Carraway recalling a unique friendship, which must have ended in tragedy. We are shown his memory of arriving in New York in the early twenties and taking up a residence in Long Island, across the water from his cousin Daisy -and her wealthy tyrant of a husband. Carraway’s residence is also next to a castle-like estate belonging to the millionaire Jay Gatsby, who throws enormous parties that explode with jazz and booze.

The movie uses the hip-hop production talents of Jay-Z and other contemporary artists to put a spin on the music and environment. Like Moulin Rouge, the point is to connect a modern audience with the nature of an environment that may seem alien now. It correctly emphasizes what jazz music meant to these rich party-goers. It was new and it had a dangerous thrill. Interestingly enough, When Leonardo DiCaprio makes his reveal as Gatsby, the music goes classic, as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue comes to a swell while fireworks go off behind the pretty-boy in the frame.

Gatsby forms a bond with Caraway. Caraway is in awe of his power and charm, but like everyone else, he is very curious of who the man really is and where his money comes from. Things become even more mysterious when Gatsby wants to arrange a meeting with Carraway’s cousin, Daisy, with whom he shares a past.

The cast is full good actors but very few of them seem comfortable in their roles. One of the best discoveries in this film is newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordon, whose screen presence is energetic and so hypnotically beautiful, she outshines Carey Mulligan as Daisy, who is cute, but not the breathtaking beauty her character is implied to be. Maguire captures the awkward well-meaning observer of the story but never becomes real enough for me to care about the heartbreak he will feel. Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband, Tom, plays a rotten jerk quite well.

As for DiCaprio, I am unsure if his Gatsby falls short for me due to the actor’s limitations, or if Luhrman and his screenwriting partner Craig Pearce were in over their heads with a character much more complex than their standard fare.

Luhrmann and company usually romanticize a hero whose dreams are within reach and could be acquired, were it not for some powerful obstacle. Gatsby is a character who is powerful and in pursuit of happiness. He thinks he knows how to achieve it, but is tragically mistaken. I feel as though this character is harder to capture than Luhrmann, Pearce, and DiCaprio assume him to be.

Overall, I feel like this movie succeeds stylistically, but like I said earlier, I never felt the connection I wanted with the characters. The movie is a hell of a show, but now I feel like going to the original source to better understand the meaning of its story… and I will… as soon as I finish reading the novelization of Iron Man 3.

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