Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013) – Review

Review: The Great Gatsby is a lot of flash, and while that makes it entertaining it is not quite enough. The film is about Nick Carraway, a fresh face new to New York City who is enchanted by his wealthy mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby. Carraway decides to help Gatsby try to win the love of his relation Daisy, who had an intimate fling with Gatsby before the war (WWI) but lost track of him. In the five years since, she has married a wealthy man from old money, Tom Buchanan, but does not seem completely happy. Carraway sees hope in Gatsby, which is important to him in the wake of a war that left many forever scarred and the world darker. He needs something to believe in, and for him it is Gatsby.

Going in, director Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was expected to be big, brash, and audacious – one giant party – exuding the opulence of the roaring twenties. Luhrmann delivers on this promise. The film is wonderfully colorful, frenetic, and grandiose in its visual style. The sets and costumes are lavish. The whole thing is a visual treat. But, this is both its greatest asset and weakness.

Luhrmann captures strong performances across his cast. Gatsby is an especially compelling character, due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar work. Whenever Gatsby is on screen, he draws all the attention his way, which only seems to make sense given his mystic in the context of the narrative. Carraway is the other character that the audience is able to connect with, both as narrator and as voyeur. He is never central to the action, but he is always around watching – becoming a foil for the narrative to play off, and therefore an in for the audience.

However, Luhrmann does not seem as interested in the other characters, and thus the strong performances are mostly wasted. Even Daisy, who is an important part to the dramatic tension and arc of the film, is narratively curtailed. He treats them as simple genre caricatures, using them only to convey the plot or a sense of the times – Daisy is nothing but a trapped delicate flower, Tom is just a brutish villain, and Gatsby is the tragic hero, nothing more. Thus, scenes not featuring Gatsby often feel a bit overlong, because the characters are not as interesting (probably the best example is the scene in which Buchanan takes Carraway to his mistress’s flat – the scene is painfully inefficient in its storytelling). Carraway is merely the method by which the audience is introduced to the world, but from there the narrative revolves around Gatsby. Yet, Luhrmann takes too much time to get to Gatsby.

The film overall suffers from being too long for the same reason. Luhrmann is far more interested in the visual spectacle than the dramatic narrative, which is fine but diminishing the characters and drama should be subdued by structuring a tight narrative that moves briskly and efficiently. This helps avoid lulls in the pacing caused by boring scenes with otherwise uninteresting characters.

There is a disconnection between the characters and the audience. Luhrman has created a superficial world in which things are there purely for their splendor, but void of real meaning. Thus, when the audience is presented with characters, connecting to them is difficult because they too seem to be all part of the show and not real people worth an emotional investment (though, DiCaprio’s performance is strong enough to draw them in a bit). As the narrative progresses, it starts to become more about the characters and their drama (Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy), but by then it is too late. Luhrmann has already lost the audience, and the film starts to feel even slower. The film is built on spectacle, so when the drama starts to replaces it in the second half it lands with a thud.

Luhrmann’s narrative set up for Carraway also feels very odd (and pointless). He is not just the narrator, but a psychiatric patient who is retelling his story about the summer he spent with Gatsby by writing it down as a way of working through his issues – as he is now a broken man in the wake of the tragedy. It is as if Luhrmann needed a visual way to explain to the audience why Carraway is the narrator (given that his character is fairly thin in the film). And, by having him write the story down, Luhrmann could have famous passages from the literature appear on the screen – which feels very cheap and further separates the audience from the characters. On top of this choice seeming not to serve any good purpose, it also drags the narrative’s pacing down, as these scenes are essentially meaningless to the audience because Carraway is not given any true dramatic moments. This is just another example of Luhrmann’s inefficiency as a storyteller.

However, despite these issues, the film is rather entertaining too. Luhrmann’s visuals are often quite engaging and his use of music works surprisingly well. While everything is designed to looks more or less period (though maybe a bit exaggerated), the film feels very modern at the same time (and all the period stuff ends up feeling like a big costume party). This is due to Luhrmann’s frantic editing and camera and his use of modern hip hop and pop music to highlight the soundtrack. The whole visual experience is very noisy with a lot going on, but it works creating a fun frivolous experience.

The Great Gatsby is not emotionally engaging. It does not have well developed characters. But, that is not Luhrmann’s intention – or at least it does not seem to be. It is grand display of decadence (which plays well against today’s social strife regarding the widening gap between classes in America) and a visual foray into exuberant costume and set design. Luhrmann wants to create an entertaining visual experience, and to that degree the film is a great success.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Baz Luhrmann is well known for his visual eye, his ability to mix modern music with period settings, and his handling of tragic romance (his most famous prior films are Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rogue! – for which The Great Gatsby fits the same mold). However, again, he squanders the potential of rich characters (from Fitzgerald’s source material) in favor of showy superficial art. This is not a good adaptation of The Great Gatsby, just as his Romeo + Juliet is a gaudy and inelegant treatment of Shakespeare’s work. And yet, it is probably Luhrmann’s most entertaining film (and certainly my favorite). He never meant it to be a true adaptation (and really, films and the books they are based on are two completely different things that should be taken as such – comparisons are more or less pointless – rather each should be looked at on their own merits, completely separate), but rather a story for him to build a visual spectacle of the 1920s on.

The music in the film sets the tone well, but never has an emotional impact. Thus, it is fair to say that Craig Armstrong’s score is unsuccessful. Additionally, it is completely overshadowed by Shawn Carter’s (Jay-Z) soundtrack that he put together for the film. Luhrmann’s best moments come when he blends Carter’s soundtrack with his vibrant visuals (which is why the trailer for the film is so fantastic). Simon Duggan’s cinematography is beautiful and mesmerizing. Along with Catherine Martin’s production design, it gives Luhrmann’s world such a tremendous polish and allure. Martin’s design is probably the film’s best attribute. Everything looks fantastic, given Luhrmann’s vision.

As said in the review, the performances are good throughout despite the weak characters. Amitabh Bachchan and Joel Edgerton are both good in support (undeterred by playing caricatures). Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is brilliant in the film playing Jordan Baker (a friend of Daisy’s). Again, she is not given much character wise, but brings a lot of energy to her performance and steals almost every scene she is in. Carey Mulligan is good as Daisy – she plays a woman trapped in a bad marriage who longs for her great lost love. Mulligan’s Daisy is naïve and innocent, but it works in the context of Luhrmann’s narrative. Tobey Maguire is good at playing someone who is both within and without, which seems to perfectly fit Nick Carraway. He is in the middle of all the action in the film but never central to it, making him a good observer. Leonardo DiCaprio almost saves this film, or to say it another way he almost elevates this film from being purely a visual feast to something that actually dramatically resonates. His performance is the best part of the film. He actually tries to bring humanity and complication to Gatsby, who Luhrmann casts as being merely the tragic hero – when there is so much more to him.

Summary & score: Come for The Great Gatsby’s flashy style, narcotic visuals, and broad dramatic strokes, but do not expect anything deeper. 6/10

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