Monday, May 13, 2013

'The Great Gatsby'

The most frustrating thing about Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is that there is so little to say about it. The trailers, filled with gorgeous, excessive imagery and a hip-hop-heavy soundtrack, promised a new vision of the classic American novel coming from the mind of director Baz Luhrmann (whose previous work includes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge). What we got, however, was a piece stuck between postmodernity and conventionalism to a degree that no Luhrmann film had been stuck before.

Adapting such a beloved and well-known novel is always tricky, but it doesn't mean it can't be done. Just last year, Joe Wright took Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and turned it into a theatrically melodramatic experience so unique and immersive I didn't mind when the movie didn't quite have the same effect as the material it was based on. It was just sublime to watch that movie. With The Great Gatsby, I was hoping for a similar experience, but Luhrmann seems weirdly restrained. When he made Romeo + Juliet back in the mid-nineties, Luhrmann brought an aggressively contemporary sensibility to the classic Shakespearean tragedy. Everything about the thing looked distinctively ninety-ish except for the original almost completely intact text. Now the director seems to have a similar respect for the original text of The Great Gatsby. The film might have been filmed in 3D and feature a contemporary soundtrack, but for the most part it is bound to Fitzgerald's novel. 

The film's first big mistake is to decide to create a framed narrative and have Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) retell the tale of Gatsby from a mental institution. Framing devices of this kind are more often than not distracting and cliché, but by having Carraway write the story, the movie ties itself way too tight to Fitzgerald's words, which even appear floating on the screen as they're being written. A large part of what makes the original novel so great is Fitzgerald's beautiful writing, by constantly calling back to it, the movie is making us compare it to the original constantly. Whether or not it were a good movie, it should try to run as far from such comparisons as it can. Everyone who has read the novel has  a version of Gatsby in their mind, why would you want to remind them of it while they're watching your movie?

The problem with the constant narration is that it seems to be used as a replacement for character development. A shortcut to navigate emotional bits as fast as possible. Navigating between Luhrmann's visual excess and more character-based moments, the movie counts on the narration to do the connecting between the two aspects, something it does very chunkily. The visual imagery, especially the incredibly beautiful sets and costumes by Catherine Martin are all amazing, but it's almost as if the characters need room to breathe and develop in a more paused and quiet environment.

Leonardo DiCaprio is very effective as Gatsby. I am not a huge fan of his work, since he tends to have a somewhat boyish and immature acting style that doesn't always work with the kind of obsessive and overly emotional roles he chooses, but that very same acting style goes perfectly with Gatsby's inner life. This is one of his best performances. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. Tobey Maguire has the thankless narrator role, Carey Mulligan (whom I usually love) does fine with Daisy Buchanan, which is also a very tricky role to pull off. A stand-out amongst the supporting player is Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, who is a really good foil to DiCaprio's Gatsby. But overall the supporting players suffer from a screenplay that can't really integrate them in what ends up feeling as a greatest hits collection more than a concept album.   

Grade: 5/10

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