Thursday, May 16, 2013

Let's review something: The Great Gatsby

‘The Great Gatsby’ was one of those films I really, truly wanted to love.  While not on the same level of anticipation as last years ‘Les Miserables’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ was extremely high on my list of films with the most potential to wow me this year.  I’m a huge fan of the novel.  Fitzgerald’s most recognized work is an outstanding piece of literature, and having read it last year for the first time, it was one of those rare instances where all the hype surrounding a book represented it well.  I was blown away.  Having seen the 1974 film version years ago, I had this lingering air of disappointment resting in the back of my mind.  Coppola’s Redford/Farrow helmed film was a boring mess and never really captured the magnificence or even poignancy of Fitzgerald’s prose, which is shocking to be honest (you’d think that director and that cast would be aces).

Baz Luhrmann is never boring.

When news broke initially that Baz was going to be adapting this novel, I was nervous.  I love Luhrmann’s style more than most and so I had no qualms with that aspect, but the fact that at the time all I had going on was the 1974 version (which bored me to tears) and the casting (Maguire, really?) has me thinking this was a bad idea.  Then I read the novel and became more intrigued by the prospect of Luhrmann doing for Gatsby what he did for Romeo. 

I was hooked.

Get your damn hands up!
While the rest of the world cringed at every new development regarding this project (the stills, the trippy party scenes, the Jay-Z centered soundtrack, the casting of Carey Mulligan, the visual expansiveness) I was in hog-heaven; wet with anticipation.  I love the bold visual quality to Luhrmann’s body of work.   No, I’ve never seen ‘Australia’, but I have seen the rest of his films, and I personally consider ‘Romeo + Juliet’ a masterpiece and consider ‘Moulin Rouge’ close to one.  His sense of style and trashy elegance is profound and unmistakably authentic to his own vision.  He has undeniable showmanship, and while his films can become chaotic and almost trippy, he reigns in those formulas to create something inspired and endearing.  Sure, it doesn’t seem like the obvious fit for Fitzgerald and yet that is what I loved so much about this project ‘in the making’.  It was so out of left field.  It didn’t make sense, and because of that I was expecting absolute, unbridled G-R-E-A-T-N-E-S-S.

I kind of got M-A-D-N-E-S-S instead.

I don’t want this to be a total bashing of the film, because I did not hate this, but unlike some film experiences, this did not rest better on me the more I thought about it.  The flaws here are too large to ignore, and while some flawed films make the most of their flaws over time (even those obnoxious close ups in ‘Les Miserables’ can be argued as intimate after subsequent viewings), the more I think about ‘The Great Gatsby’ the more uneasy I am over the overall product.  Still, there are certain aspects that deserve our attention (most notably the technical aspects and Joel Edgerton).

I’ll talk about those first.

The film is lushly draped and a whole lot of fun to watch, from a purely visual standpoint.  Okay, the use of CGI was atrocious and made me really, really angry, but I’m talking about the clothes and sets right now.  The garments for each character were beautifully tailored and expertly crafted for each individual personality.  The use of angelic pastels for Daisy or gruff structure for Tom or silky smooth polish for Gatsby were all magnificently accurate.  The rooms, the showman’s quality to each piece was jaw dropping in many respects. 

The acting, for the most part, was really well done.  Carey Mulligan, despite initial concerns, was a wonderful Daisy.  She captured her free spirit trapped by her upper crust lifestyle and her imbedded selfishness that refused to allow her to completely follow her heart.  She had this breathy, almost adolescent take on Daisy’s overall ‘act’, but she managed to flesh out those final moments with her eyes to excruciating detail.  Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki was sensationally good as Jordon Baker.  I had high hopes for this particular performance because Lois Chiles delivers my favorite performance in Coppola’s film and so I love what ‘can’ be done with this character.  Debicki did all that and then some!  She handled her alluring tension, her unashamed material point of view and her dripping sensuality while capturing the era, the vibe and the bridled chaos of the city.  For me though, Joel Edgerton takes top honors.  Not only does he hold his accent marvelously (poor DiCaprio goes in and out too much) but he also etches out every layer of Tom’s emotional complexity.  When reading the novel I was enamored with how layered this man was, and he instantly became one of my favorite literary villains.  Edgerton gets it so right here.  He captures Tom’s sexual presence as well as his gruff exterior, his selfish tendencies and his control issues.  The panic in his eyes when he sees his world slipping is compelling, and the tension he brings to his neck when he faces Gatsby’s rage is fantastic.  That laugh, that all knowing chuckle (that shakes in its attempt to mask his fears) is flawless, and his manipulative talk is authentic to a T. 
I wish Oscar would knock on their doors...
DiCaprio is effective here, but the script doesn’t help him much (I agree with those who say a drinking game on the utterances of ‘Old Sport’ would result in alcohol poisoning) and Tobey Maguire is a mess.  His narration is awful (I hate his voice) and he really suffers at trying to bring some authenticity to his role.  It’s a poorly executed performance, and I personally wish a younger and more talented actor had been cast.  The biggest disappointment for me was Isla Fisher.  I had such high hopes for this performance because I personally like her a lot and this character has so much meat, but instead she is relegated to a caricature who appears in one outlandish party scene and then, well, the car.

But that brings me to one of my biggest qualms with the film as a whole; Luhrmann.  I never thought that this would be my issue, mainly because I championed him taking a bold approach, but his boldness feels so half-baked here.  I told my wife as we left the theater that I wished he had taken it all the way or not bothered to take it there at all.  He had so many visual ideas, but he left them half-developed.  The first thirty minutes or so of the film is a chaotic exploitation of modern ideas infiltrating times past and then he almost gives up on that amalgam altogether and tries to give things a more respectable air.  It creates a disjointed atmosphere that doesn’t hold up.  The sad part is that both divisions are flawed in their execution as well, and so you can’t even say that one half is better than the other.  The chaotic scenes lack the proper editing to make them feel exciting.  The party scenes drag on too long and become repetitive and feel high-school trashy, not visionary trashy.  I’m someone who considers Luhrmann an auteur and so I expected more from him.  The drier parts of the film, while never boring, feel like they were ripped from a completely different film done by a different actor.  They almost have an amateurish quality to them.  Luhrmann’s grasp of the material itself just feels so rudimentary, so surface. 

You're over-thinking things again, Mr. Luhrmann!
He never digs deep enough, yet is contented with exploiting the obvious.

Now, while I applaud the lavish sets and costumes, the use of CGI was an embarrassment.  I understand that he was trying to create layers, and maybe in a 3D world this has better effect (I saw this in 2D), but I feel that any 3D film better work in 2D, and this one just felt like it was trying too hard.  The CGI was distracting, especially in the creation of landscapes (the shots of the car driving into the grimy district were horribly cartoonish) and the obnoxious car rides and complete insistence on giving us everything gave me a headache.  While I find Luhrmann’s use of music in all of his films to be exciting and inspired, there were moments here that felt a tad beneath him in execution.  It felt like he was a new director trying really, really hard to be relevant and ultimately coming off as a poser of sorts.

What is this, fucking Disney World?
But that Lana Del Rey song is heaven!

So there you have it.  I’m in the middle here.  I’ll see this again, and I can’t say I’d not recommend it.  It has a lot to offer, but at the end of the day I feel as though this is lesser Luhrmann and ultimately feels like a step backwards for the director.  He doesn’t mesh his directorial approaches well and delivers to us a beautifully draped, awkwardly paced and ultimately fragmented take on a stunning literary piece. 

As far as Oscar is concerned, I am saddened that Edgerton and Debicki have NO SHOT at a nomination, but I can easily see this snagging nominations for Art Direction, Costumes and Original Song (please be eligible).


  1. Great review! Baz Luhrmann is never boring? True enough, but he's got a knack for making your head spin! Very true that you've got Madness instead of Greatness, and nobody does madness quite like Baz. I actually wasn't too impressed w/ Mulligan here, Debicki was the scene stealer, she reminded me a bit of Rooney Mara but more likable. I LOVE that Lana Del Rey song too, I think you're the one who introduced that song to me here. I hope it's eligible for Best Original Song!!

    – ruth

    1. Thank you so much Ruth! Debicki was a total scene stealer. I only wish that she had a shot at a nomination.

  2. Excellent review man! I was also bored stiff by the '74 version, but I enjoyed this one a lot more. Glad you liked Edgerton's performance too, and the technical aspects are quite stunning. Though it was uneven, I really liked it. I'd probably rank Australia beneath it, so you might not even want to bother with it. ;)

    1. LOL, I still need to see Australia, if only so that I can do a visual review of all of Baz's films!

    2. Oh, forgot about that. Do it! :)