Monday, September 30, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Against the Current, But Down Luhrmann's Stream

The Great Gatsby
US/Australia, 2013
Directed and co-written (with Craig Pearce) by Baz Luhrmann

If there's anything I've learned in my years of watching films and studying film reception, it's that, when it comes to how a person receives a film, expectations play as big a part as the film itself. These expectations can, of course, be shaped by a number of factors: ad campaigns, media coverage, experience with any pre-existing source material, familiarity with the stars or creative team, word of mouth, critical opinion, even memes and jokes on the internet. Often, when a film subverts your expectations—whether it is better, worse, or merely different than you thought it would be—your immediate response is more intense as a result of its being colored by the gap between expectations and reality. But when a film meets your expectations, and is no different, no more or less than you expected it to be, there are only two responses I can imagine: either satisfaction of the "fits like a glove" variety, or the sort of apathetic "Yep." that follows naturally from being shown a movie you'd basically already seen in your mind's eye.

Try to guess which of these describes my feelings about Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.

Based, of course, on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic "Jazz Age" tale, The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a naive midwesterner who comes to tony Long Island when he gives up writing to become a bond salesman. There, he visits his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives in old money East Egg with her husband, burly Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and their young daughter. Nick settles in across the bay in West Egg, home of the nouveau riche, and takes a small house next door to a mysterious "business mogul" named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws lavish parties every weekend but whom no-one has ever met. In time, Nick makes Gatsby's acquaintance, learning about Gatsby's past connection to Daisy, although his life story is one where truth and fiction aren't so distinct.

I haven't read the book since high school—so, really, you could say I "read" it—so that doesn't bias me as much as some reviewers. But I will say that nothing much of the tone of Fitzgerald's original survives here, though that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Luhrmann is a showman, a creator of arch unreality that intentionally challenges our ability to suspend disbelief. Under his guidance, Gatsby goes from a trim, eloquent account of hollow wealth and disappointed love in the Roaring Twenties to a grand cartoonish opera of the same (or, exactly what we all thought Luhrmann's Gatsby would be like). In its own way, this works surprisingly well in creating an atmosphere and a world for the story to play with. The parties are admirably huge and intense, and the artifice of the whole enterprise does adequately point at the potential artifice of Gatsby's life. At other times, however, Luhrmann's campiness has the effect of taking what should be important conversations and earnest emotions and shoving them into the background behind a bunch of flash and glitter.

This is ever the case with Luhrmann, whose work I have enjoyed in the past—Romeo + Juliet is one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and while I still don't know what I think about Moulin Rouge!, most of those thoughts are at least somewhat positive. But when a director becomes more known for his signature than for the work for which it stands, this can be a problem. After all, there is a reason why I'm no longer able to get excited about Tim Burton movies: it's hard to muster much enthusiasm when a director always gives you just what you expect. Luhrmann's stagecraft here is impressive—I particularly enjoyed his take on the decaying optometrist billboard in the Valley of Ashes, as well as his vision of the docks on either side of that bay separating the old money from the new—but it is, in the end, only stagecraft. The film it most called to mind was Joe Wright's impressive-yet-flawed, proscenium-bound Anna Karenina, in the way both never fully earned their stagy pretensions. Here, it's hard to shake the feeling that it was all done in the service of Baz Luhrmann rather than Jay Gatsby.

So it's strange to me that, even alongside the completely expected stuff—loopy driving sequences, anachronistic music, incongruous and ill-placed attempts at humor—there is something acutely touching at the film's core. In my mind, much of that boils down to DiCaprio's performance in the title role. He brings a certain raw melancholy, a sensitivity and nuance that shows the character's loneliness and points to the emptiness of everything he surrounds himself with. The other actors are more of a mixed bag. On the good side, I liked Jason Clarke as George Wilson, despite his limited screen time, and Elizabeth Debicki was well-cast as Jordan Baker. Even Edgerton's Tom Buchanan was mostly well considered, dodgy accent and one-note writing be damned.

But I never fully bought into Tobey Maguire as Carraway. This wasn't entirely his fault: Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce frame the film with an older Carraway, now an alcoholic recovering in a sanitarium, writing the story of his time with Gatsby as a form of therapy. The choice seems a little arbitrary, and nothing about Maguire's performance really sells it. Only through his relationship with Gatsby, especially entering the film's final act, does Maguire's Carraway begin to come to life. And as much as I love Mulligan as an actress, I found little in her performance to convince me of her pivotal role in Gatsby's life. Some of this is inherent to the character, some to how the script treats her, and some to how well DiCaprio conveys Gatsby's longing. Their pairing is never balanced—that's sort of the point—but I think we need to at least understand what Gatsby sees in her and I'm not sure Luhrmann ever shows us. Daisy suffers the most, of the major characters, from the distance and flattening that Luhrmann's methods create across the board.

In the end, though, in spite of all of its flaws, its boozy swooning and its campy pizzazz, The Great Gatsby isn't "bad" enough to cause any great offense or become an ironic classic. Neither is it "good" enough to be a definitive screen version of the novel (not that anyone intended it to be), nor anything like an awards contender, save for DiCaprio's performance. It is, however, Baz Luhrmann-y enough to be more or less exactly what I imagined it would be. If that's enough for you, or if you're a Gatsby completist, or if you want to see a good performance by one of our most criminally–under-rewarded actors, see it. Otherwise, you're not missing too much you probably didn't already picture.


  1. I felt it to be a little too similar, both in story and style, to Moulin Rouge. Carraway felt too much like a reincarnation of Christian to me. Lurhmann's films have always exhibited a similar style, yes, but I felt they were different enough to stand alone. Not the case, here.

    Also I agree with your thoughts on the characters; well put. I also didn't find Maguire believable as the aged, alcoholic Carraway, but thought he contrasted really well against DiCaprio. And DiCaprio himself was just amazing, as always. I especially liked the scene where he sees Daisy again for the first time - the expression on his face was perfect.

    1. Yeah, I can definitely see what you mean re: MOULIN ROUGE!—there was at least one scene (I think it was the one with Tom's mistress) that felt nearly identical to a scene with Toulouse-Lautrec's crew in MOULIN. What happened was different, but the feeling and even some of the shots seemed almost the same. You're also right about the way he handled Carraway: he basically squeezed him into the same trope as Christian.

      And yes, that scene with Gatsby and Daisy was one of Leo's best. He did so much with a character who can be a cipher (and is really almost written as one), so he's definitely the thing that stands out most to me.

  2. The thing that really surprised me about this movie was that it was boring. That is one thing I did not expect.

    1. Spurge - Yeah... it definitely had its share of draggy bits. Honestly, sometimes all of that splashiness and showmanship ends up sucking the energy out of a film.

      Mark Kermode, one of my favorite critics, has concept called "The Michael Bolton problem," which he brings up whenever a movie puts it all on the line very early and peaks too soon, just like Bolton does when he immediately goes balls-out on the second line of a song. But basically, it's like... if you've done all of that so early, where do you go from there? You peaked too soon, and now attempting to sustain that level just renders the audience numb.

      There's also a Neapolitan Italian phrase my family uses... I think it'd be written sort of like "quanta morsa," though we pronounce it closer to "quanda moss." It apparently (as I've only just learned) translates to "how much vice!" but colloquially it sort of stands in for "too much," in the sense of gaudiness, over-the-top, etc. Baz Luhrmann is all about the quanta morsa, but unfortunately after awhile it's just desensitizing and dull.

    2. Way off topic but have you reviewed The Descendants?

    3. I didn't review it... I can't recall exactly when I watched it, but it was before I got back into blogging. I think I liked it well enough. It felt less like an Alexander Payne movie than his other work, and it never struck me as much or as deeply as ABOUT SCHMIDT or even SIDEWAYS, but it was sensitively observed and well-acted. Still, I think it suffered a bit because of how talked-up it was, so it's something that I should revisit some day.

    4. I never saw About Schmidt but I loved Sideways. I did not know the connection. I liked the Descendants a lot. Some of it was nostalgia for my vacation to Hawaii I took a few years ago. They shot in a lot of places I had been to.