Friday, May 17, 2013

The Not-So-Great Gatsby

If you went to high school in the United States, chances are you had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel 'The Great Gatsby.' And if you did, you likely realize that better perhaps than any other work of fiction, Fitzgerald captured the essence and spirit of what we call the "Roaring Twenties", with the freely available liquor and cares hidden so far below the surface they're practically unrecognizable. It was the party after allied victory in The Great War, and before we would realize the devastation that was the Great Depression. On the cinematic front, there are now five adaptations of Gatsby, ranging from Herbert Brenon's original 1926 entry to the classic 1974 film scripted by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford and Sam Waterston. But Baz Lurhmann's latest rendition of Fitzgerald's seminal work looks to change the entire look and feel we've been accustomed to in 2013's The Great Gatsby. For one thing, it's Baz frickin' Lerhmann, the man whose modernist film adaptation of Romeo + Juliet has become easily the most popular cinematic version of Shakespeare's most famous play. This is a man who has become known for his visual splendor, a la Moulin Rouge and Australia. Even if you're not a fan of his work, you have to admit that he takes an artistic effort to make his movies as visually arresting as possible. Looking at the early trailers for his Gatsby, it's easy to see how his ocular voluminosity could work wonders with the age of excess that was the 1920's.
When the bowtie was king.
For those of you who still haven't read 'Gatsby' (or if you're like me and have forgotten most of it), it's the story of nouveau riche millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man known for his extravagant all-night parties and his mysterious anonymity. He takes interest in young neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), and pines after the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). But Daisy is married to philandering Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and until now didn't even realize that Gatsby was still alive. In the chaos that follows, friendships are tried and tested, and in the end, we learn just who the cryptic Jay Gatsby really is.
Wish I could see what was so interesting.
The good news is that Luhrmann's vision of the world Fitzgerald originally created is largely fitting. Gatsby's parties are full of pomp and circumstance, and the showy decorations, ginormous and elaborate mansions and the outrageous dresses looking both perfectly modern and eminently appropriate for the time. The director also has a flair for cinematography, capturing shots beautiful to the naked eye. The special effects work is unfortunately hit-or-miss; while his shots of the majestic (but still under construction) New York City are gorgeous, some of his more action-oriented visuals - most notably Gatsby driving his gold-tinted car though the city - have enough twinges of falsity to their animation that it's unfortunately noticeable. A few other visuals don't exactly work (makeup effects create some very cartoonish characters, for instance), but for the most part Luhrmann's efforts are successful. Far more likable is the soundtrack, compiled by Jay-Z, which includes the hip-hot artist alongside pop artists Lana Del Ray, Florence and the Machines and a host of others current-day performers. While the soundtrack is very much modern, Jay-Z's talents combined with Lurhmann's modernist touches never lets the anachronistic soundtrack feel out of place in the ninety year-old setting.
Daisy could use these flowers as camouflage.
The Great Gatsby is also another step on the great career that is Leonardo DiCaprio stardom. For the longest time DiCaprio was the epitome of unfulfilled potential, often performing well enough but not at the level of excellence many had predicted for him (and in the case of Titanic, sometimes less than that). That abruptly changed in 2004 with The Aviator, with such a mature performance that rose above almost everything else that year. He proved that year was no fluke by following it up by great performance after great performance, starring in The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, Inception, J. Edgar, and Django Unchained. In Gatsby, he once again puts forth a dominating effort, perhaps the greatest characterization of the suave and emotional Jay Gatsby to date. One of the rumors for why this film was pushed back was so that DiCaprio would not have to lobby for two award nominations at once (along with Django, which sadly saw him left off the Oscar ballot), and if true his showing here definitely gives the theory some merit. Still, it's not entirely his show, and Luhrmann does a decent job surrounding him with great actors like Mulligan, Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke and Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, all of whom meld into their characters and provide their much-appreciated talents.
One of the bigger talents in the movie. No, I don't mean Tobey.
Sadly, the acting is also largely where Gatsby goes wrong, most decisively with Tobey Maguire, who trounces everybody's combined good efforts with a performance worthy of the Razzies. Maguire is so completely miscast for the role that it almost seems silly to criticize his performance, but since he was the man Luhrmann chose to narrate his tale, I'm going to do so anyway. Maguire varies between trite, boring voice-overs and overly emotive dialogue, and never succeeds at drawing any interest from his audience. It's bad enough that Nick Carraway is a boring side character in the life of Jay Gatsby, but as we're supposed to be seeing all of the action through Nick's perspective, it would have been nice to actually want to give a damn about him. Instead we're forced to suffer through some of the worst dramatic acting this year, and all because Luhrmann wouldn't realize that Maguire had been regressing talent-wise since he peaked almost a decade ago. Nick Carraway CAN be interesting (Watterston did it in the seventies!), but Maguire absolutely sinks any good his character might have achieved.
"A toast to forget the last two hours."
Maguire is not the lone problem with Gatsby (how did Luhrmann not learn how to cut and edit a film by now?), but he is the most obvious and offensive flaw within it. While it's visually splendid, does have a few good moments and is largely well-acted, this Great Gatsby is a drab, soulless, BORING recitation that almost put me to sleep on more than one occasion. There's just nothing going on behind the scenes, and the director does little to make Fitzgerald's creation relevant beyond his cosmetic touch-ups. Luhrmann's work is all sound and fury, and while he definitely makes the film all his own, it remains one of the more disappointing of the year, and perhaps will even be remembered as one of the year's worst. Fans of the director and Fitzgerald fanatics might get what they want out of this, but everybody else should stay far, far away.

No comments: