Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Great Gatsby

Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
2013. Rated PG-13, 142 minutes. 
Elizabeth Debicki 
Amitabh Bachchan 
Adelaide Clemens

In 1922, Nick Carraway (Maguire) is one of the young, ambitious types who have flooded Wall Street looking for a big score. He's just moved into a small house on a rather exclusive island just outside New York City called West Egg. All of his neighbors are filthy rich and live in towering mansions. These are mostly people who've recently become wealthy. His next door neighbor, the mysterious Gatsby (DiCaprio) is one such fellow. Right across the bay is East Egg, a community made up of people from old money. There lives his cousin Daisy (Mulligan), who is married to the snobbish Tom Buchanan (Edgerton). Nick becoming tangled up in all of these people's affairs and their wild partying lifestyles ensues. In case you skipped high school, this is based on the famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Speaking of high school, that is where I first and last read the book and saw the original movie, starring Robert Redford in the titular role. Since that was at least umnumdiddily years ago, I have no recollection of the details. For all intents and purposes, I came into this blind. I'm okay with that. It makes it easier to judge the film on its own merits rather than how faithful it is to a classic piece of literature. So to all of you slamming it for not being as good as the book, I'm sorry. I just don't have that perspective. I am not saying that I just love this movie. Far from it. I am saying that my reasoning for what I view as pros and cons have nothing to do with the novel.

To start on the plus side, what can't be denied is that this is a remarkable looking film. The sets and the props all scream "roaring twenties." From the upscale mansions that reach toward the heavens to the grimy communities where the rich go to do their dirt, it all looks perfect. Add in the cars, costumes, color pallettes, and the grand time everyone seems to be having nearly at all times, and The Great Gatsby continuously dazzles the eyes. It's a vibrant world filled with people without a care in it. Their extravagant lives jump off the screen.

That extravagance is at the heart of the movie's slyly self-mocking sense of humor. It's not a comedy, but the people on the screen, especially Gatsby himself, have an understanding that they are ridiculously out of touch with the real world. They know that it's all "too much," yet they can't help but revel in the excess. They've cocooned themselves in bling and are quite giddy about their accomplishment.

Our wealthy fools are all played marvelously. Leonardo DiCaprio superbly shows us a man completely in tune with building his empire, however that may be, and presenting himself as a dashing figure. On the other hand, he tends to flap about like a fish on a boat when dealing with matters of the heart. His eventual rival, Tom Buchanan, is played nicely by Joel Edgerton as a relentless brute. He brandishes his life of privilege like a weapon and isn't afraid to use it. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as a woman torn, not in an emotional sense, but an ethical one. She has one treasure trove and is offered another. Her dilemma is deciding if she owes it to the man who gave her the first, to keep it. Finally, there's Maguire as Nick. He makes a nice mediator. More importantly, he's the closest thing to "one of us" we have in this world. As such, he maintains a somewhat incredulous disposition about everything.

Eventually, we have to get to the downside. Here we are. to start with something simple, let's talk music. In case you've forgotten, the movie is set in the early 1920s. That alone is more than reason enough for us not to be hearing Jay-Z every five minutes. To be honest, I've been a fan of Jigga for a very long time. I'm talking since well before most of you had ever heard of him. I'm talking since back when he cared more about his lyrics than trying to fit them to a radio-friendly beat. Right now, I can recite "Can't Knock the Hustle" totally from memory without pauses or mistakes, and without the song playing to guide me. I like a number of the tracks used here. Many of them are retro-fitted for a vaguely 20s feel. They just don't fit, no matter how they're altered. Having early twentieth century party goers kick their heels up to "Crazy in Love" is just silly, to me. It stinks on of a filmmaker over-reaching in an attempt to appeal to young audiences. For a movie that went through painstaking efforts to look authentic, this is a hard to forgive misstep in the opposite direction. Admittedly, if it makes your toes tap you might be willing to look past it. I couldn't.

The music is really just a symptom of a bigger problem. The whole thing feels empty and pointless. If not completely empty, then definitely shallow. I'm sure there is some grand interpretation of the American Dream and our remorseless capitalism to be culled from the fates of all involved. Those of you who have written papers on the novel, feel free to clue me in. Cinematically, it doesn't translate. On the screen, it comes off as a couple of flashy rich guys we don't particularly like in a pissing contest to see who gets to spoil the already spoiled princess. One is a heartless philanderer. The other is purposely a home-wrecker. Both men are exceedingly arrogant and self-centered. The question we wind up asking ourselves is do we really care which asshole gets the girl?


  1. I agree with you in full here. Everyone involved obviously went to great lengths to make the film look good, but I found the whole thing to be an over bloated mess. I couldn't get into the music either, which is odd, because I thought the modern tracks in Moulin Rouge! worked so well.

    1. Pretty pictures does not a movie make. And yeah, every time that music started up I was pulled right out of the film.

  2. There's a lot of that colorful style we always know Luhrmann for here, but it works well with the movie and having it be more than just a boring tale of rich people, doing rich things. Good review Dell.

    1. It's definitely stylish, just not enough substance for me. Thanks for reading, as always!