22 May 2013

Filmbook: "The Great Gatsby" (2013)

I have been anticipating this movie since it was a rumor of an adaptation, the kind of pet project that captures everyone's attention and then is never heard about again except for on Wikipedia. I liked it, and if you wanted to go see it tomorrow I'd probably go with you, but knowing that I'm studying it, I'm not losing myself in it. By that metric "The Great Gatsby" failed for me. Making me interested and even provoked? Right away, and completely.

You know the drill: A doe-eyed Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves in next door to a mysterious man who throws legendary parties -- Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who takes a shine to Nick after he finds out about Nick's rich cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who lives across the bay in the old-money Hamptons. (The Egg Islands. Whatever.) Debauchery ensues, but a calculated amount and deployment of it, leading up to the moment when Gatsby can set eyes on Daisy -- who he wooed lo these five years ago -- and try to woo her again. Luhrmann adds a frame story in which Carraway is writing THE GREAT GATSBY while drying out at a clinic in 1929, at his doctor's urging.

Luhrmann built his reputation on his "Red Curtain Trilogy" of movies strung together by theatrical motifs ("William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" being the one most germane to this audience, transplanting Italy into Southern California but with the Bard's language intact). MTV-style editing, swoopy camera shots, melodrama and anachronism were his tools, most of them notably absent from his last movie, 2008's "Australia." For those of us who loved the Red Curtain Trilogy, "Australia" was a sweeping, very pretty disappointment; it's hardly even worth describing its puffed-up plot because the vistas were more memorable anyway. More Merchant and Ivory than MTV, and that's the direction into which "The Great Gatsby" occasionally meandered, as if Luhrmann, now older, has grown more cautious. 

But caution is the last thing this movie about careless people, and those whose care prompts them to do lavish, wasteful things, requires to do its job. The director has never been subtle -- imagine those words "not subtle" in neon with crawling animated dots around them flanked by trumpeters to get what I mean -- and often it works against him. But the splashiness of his going there distinguish this movie from a more muted adaptation, like the Redford one I personally describe as "about nine hours long," or the lost 2000 TV film. (Look it up. Paul Rudd is Nick Carraway.) Chafe at the auteur theory or not, but not any director could have made this particular film; it's gotta be a Luhrmann. (There's actually a sequence in a flashback that directly calls back to "Romeo + Juliet" evoking a similar emotion, but I assume that was just put in for nerds like me.)

I loved this movie when it was gutsy and strange and had too much going on in the frame; I liked it less when it resorted to tricks like printing Carraway's narration on the sky as if it had drifted there straight from his typewriter, or repeating earlier lines in voiceover for Foreshadowing (capital letter implied). I loved the big, showy performances from DiCaprio, who actually looks to be having fun onscreen for the first time since "Titanic," Joel Edgerton as an almost-not-monstrous Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth "Face Made For Flapper Era" Debicki as Jordan Baker; I also loved Mulligan's Daisy, who has to be so subtle so you don't either love or hate her. (I liked Maguire all right, but a lot less in the second half, when his attempt to put on an appreciative/ admiring face in Gatsby's presence left him looking like a cartoon hound.) I loved the mash-ups, and the way the movie's main pop theme is later worked over into an instrumental for the band at Gatsby's house. I didn't like the frame story, because so many other movies have been there (I was thinking of the BENJAMIN BUTTON film in particular, which offers a similar unresolved taste).

For my taste this movie would have to be a little bolder in its choices for me to love it, but several of its arresting set pieces stay with me even now. And everyone I went to see it with, loved or hated, expressed the desire to revisit Fitzgerald's classic.

Filmbook verdict: Of course I'm not going to let you get away with seeing this before you read the book, but if you read it and then see it, let's chat. 

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Good review Ellen. Not amazing, but okay watch if you’ve never read the book. But for people that have read it; it will be a bit of a bummer.