Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of wealthy New Yorkers partying through the 1920s with reckless abandon, has been a staple of high school reading lists for decades. On the one hand, that makes sense: it's not a difficult read, written in a vivid language that's easy to understand, and it's thematically rich in a way that fosters classroom discussion (though, believe it or not, I was never assigned the book for any class; I read it on my own time). Yet there is, to me, an inherent flaw here, one that has shaped our understanding of the book's allure and, in turn, subsequent film adaptations of it: the opulent parties and glamorous wealth become the focus, not the biting social commentary that lurks beneath.

Take 1974's Gatsby: with a script by none other than Francis Ford Coppola and starring turns from Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, it was (deservedly) derided for being too stuffy and "prestige-y" (for lack of a better word). There is a stiffness to it all: in getting directly at Fitzgerald's themes, it makes Jazz Age New York look like a slurry of Important Costume Drama tropes, without any of the liveliness in Fitzgerald's prose.

Now, in 2013, we have a new Gatsby: Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular character, a mysterious man who throws massive parties at his mansion in fictional West Egg, New York. Naive Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) - the Fitzgerald and audience stand-in - moves into the cottage next door, and frequently visits his rich cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom Buchanan (best-in-show Joel Edgerton), across the bay in East Egg. Nick grows close to Gatsby, who ropes him in to a plot to reunite him with Daisy, a plan that eventually spirals out of control.

The new film comes from Baz Luhrmann, the Moulin Rouge! director who seems intent on making only one film every seven years. One of the core problems with this film, though, is that Luhrmann is simultaneously the best and worst choice for directing. When it comes to staging the lavish bacchanals, who better than Mr. Spectacular Spectacular himself? And make no mistake, those scenes are magnificently-staged spectacles, champagne-and-chandaliers eye-candy matched with a gloriously anachronistic soundtrack (Lana Del Rey's haunting "Young & Beautiful" being the standout). The film as a whole has a gorgeous sheen to it, much to the credit of cinematographer of Simon Duggan.

However, at the same time, Luhrmann has a tougher go at handling the more human moments. Working again with longtime collaborator Craig Pierce, their script too often hammers home Fitzgerald's themes of old money vs. new money and the recklessness of the rich, who believe themselves to be above the rules that govern the rest of us (certainly relevant today). Worse, though, is the film's tacky framing device, which places Nick in a sanitarium some point after the events of the film, his doctor recommending that he write it all down as a novel. It allows for some of Fitzgerald's original lines to be used, but it feels imported from another, lesser movie, and never gels with everything else in the film.

Luckily, there's a terrific cast here doing mostly great work. The character of Nick Carraway - the passive outsider observing the events and only marginally involved in them - would be daunting challenge for any actor, and though Maguire might seem like an odd choice on paper, he acquits himself well. Mulligan, on the other hand, is a fine and intriguing actress, but never really feels inspired by Daisy: it's a decent performance, but she never quite captures Daisy's bourgeois naiveté. DiCaprio's youthful appearance goes a long way in making his performance as Gatsby riveting, and he carries the film quite well (though it's not among his best performances, it's worthy of discussion in terms of his career). As I mentioned before, it's Edgerton who really shines as Tom, a man of his time who can't handle the idea of losing the power he's acquired over his relationships. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Elizabeth Debicki (a relative newcomer) also shine in minor roles.

The majority of this review sounds like I'm dumping on the film. I realize that I kind of am; this was, after all, my most anticipated film of the year, so I had high hopes for it. I don't mean for it to sound like I didn't enjoy it; in fact, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think that what does work makes up for what doesn't. But I think the world is still waiting for the truly great Gatsby film that Fitzgerald's novel deserves. Until then, though, this entertaining spectacle will do. B+

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