Monday, May 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Grade: 43/C

The biggest problem in adapting The Great Gatsby is that it’s borderline impossible. Almost everything that’s wonderful about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork is literary, from the gorgeous prose that’s hard to replicate on film to a deeply inward protagonist (Nick, not Gatsby) to symbols that, while deeply moving in print, might seem silly and overwrought on film. Even a truly gifted director would have trouble matching the tone of the novel, which captures what’s so appealing about the Roaring Twenties while still taking a sober, often cynical and ironic look at its excess and how it often symbolized the worst in America. Hyperactive Australian director Baz Luhrmann is more than adept to capture the former feeling, but he has trouble capturing the latter.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an alcoholic now living in a sanitarium in the years since the Jazz Age bubble burst. He tells a tale of how, as a bond salesman and former writer living in Long Island, he came into contact with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a millionaire prone to hosting lavish parties without coming into contact with any of his hundreds of guests. Gatsby, it turns out, pines for his long lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin, who is married to the unfaithful, snobbish Tom (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby strikes up a friendship with Nick and reignites his relationship with Daisy, but questions about his past and his connection to certain bootleggers start up, and soon Gatsby’s relationship leads to his downfall.

If the film has one major asset, it’s DiCaprio, whose mixture of charm, beauty, and pathetic attachment to the past is the most fully realized aspect of the story. The rest of the film’s virtues are almost completely in the margins- newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is phenomenal as Jordan Baker, Nick’s cynical love interest, while the gorgeous look of the film at least kept this audience member engaged. If nothing else, Luhrmann is skilled at capturing decadence, and the early parties are so over-the-top and audacious in their silliness (and their deliberate flaunting of period-accurate soundtrack, which prominently features Jay-Z and other rappers) that it’s difficult not to be swept up in it.

Luhrmann is less confident in the comedown. He’s too much of a melodramatist and believer in true love and excess to fully engage with the party’s end. Worse, he focuses far too much on the lovey-dovey material between Gatsby and Daisy, showing way too much of the two frolicking together and Nick stares on beatifically. Gatsby’s central romance is not a love story so much as it’s a major symbol for how Gatsby constantly reaches for things he thinks he wants, never mind how happy it’ll actually make him (the American Dream defined). In other words, it’s a purposefully shallow romance. Luhrmann makes it the emotional core, simplifying and therefore reducing the scope of the story. It doesn’t help that he drags on the romantic material in a way that makes much of the cold feet comedown seem like Cliff Notes faithfulness rather than interpretation.

But to be fair, this was an impossible project from the start. Even had Luhrmann not purposefully gone too broad painting Edgerton’s Tom as a villain, it would have been difficult to paint the old-money focused man as a complex character rather than a moustache-twirling baddie. Even had the film spent a disproportionate amount of time making the romance feel real, the wonderful Carey Mulligan would have trouble animating Daisy, a deliberate cipher who’s almost impossible to play. As for poor Maguire, he’s stuck narrating passages that, while gorgeous in the book, feel mostly like exposition in the film, and his central figure’s arc is too internal to make the subject of a film. Basically, books are not movies, no matter how much a gifted stylist like Luhrmann might try.

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