Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

After a six month delay from its initial release date and a string of well-crafted trailers that somehow seemed to assault and entice all five senses at once, Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby has finally arrived with all the fanfare and bright shiny colors we would expect from the Australian auteur.

For those of you who slept through the Fitzgerald unit in your high school English class, The Great Gatsby tells the story of the titular Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man of extravagant means who throws lavish parties at his Long Island mansion home in the hopes of one day encountering his long-lost love and New York socialite Daisy Buchanan. The story is narrated by Gatsby's neighbor and Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway, an aspiring-writer-turned-Wall Street suit-turned-disillusioned-romantic and has become the signature portrayal of the "Roaring 20's" era of American history, known for its criticism of the American dream and [Obligatory but probably unnecessary spoiler alert] for killing its protagonist with a shot to the back in a swimming pool [end spoiler alert].

In Luhrmann's creation, all of the crucial Hemingway elements are preserved, including the narration shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly by a plot device that sees Carroway telling his story as a form of therapy in a sanitarium. I mean sure, Nick is affected by the tragic events that unfold but a sanitarium? Excessive much, Baz?

Except excess is the calling card of Luhrmann, who's previous directorial outings include the 90's IT movie Romeo + Juliet and the early-00's IT musical Moulin Rouge. Those movies, more than the directors other works, form a sort of natural bridge with Gatsby as the director has increasingly embraced flash-bang CG gimmickry as a supplement to his storytelling abilities. R+T, Moulin Rouge and Gatsby could be considered Luhrmann's star-crossed lovers trilogy, with each installment upping the pomp and circumstance of the last at the cost of raw, emotional heft.

Each frame of Gatsby is painted over, almost lustily, with a sort of otherworldly, cartoonish glow, which is made all the more noxious by the completely ill-advised use of 3D technology. Even the night scenes, as lovers steal kisses or gaze across Long Island sound at the piercing glow of a distant green light, sparkle with an all-too-dazzling luminescence. As for the grandiose party scenes, in which panache is both expected and welcome, Luhrmann's camera can hardly allow one bursting champagne bottle or piece of confetti to go unnoticed as he pans the crowd of revelers in their full display of pre-depression decadence.

It all makes for an enthralling spectacle, but when the music stops and the sweeping camera pauses for breath, Luhrmann misses out on the opportunity for quiet resonance that made Romeo + Juliet the memorable classic that (at least I think) it is.

But I do not mean to sound overly critical. While it falls short in some areas the movie is not without its strengths. DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton – as the brutish and unfaithful Tom Buchanan – deliver strong performances, particularly in the film's climax that sees them pitted against each other in a battle of wits for the affection of the waifish Daisy. DiCaprio, looking as ageless as ever, IS Jay Gatsby, wearing a mask of irresistible charm over the shame of being "new money," bought through questionable business dealings and all but bursting from within under the weight of his own, repressive hope for an unattainable future. His entrance, late in the first act, is an editing masterpiece as the music swells and the camera swirls around to DiCaprio's smiling face, arm outstretched offering a martini glass as fireworks burst behind him. Great, indeed.

The second act comes the closest to capturing Fitzgerald's work as we begin to peel back the layers on the enigmatic Gatsby and watch as he awkwardly reunites with his former flame and, in a fog of giddy ecstasy, parades her around his estate figuratively and literally throwing the symbols of his wealth at her. For a moment the heavy-handed dialogue slips away and we see what Gatsby sees, a future of hope and possibility, and even though we know its doomed to fail we can't help but wish for the best.

The other romances and sub-plots are mostly sidelined in favor of the central love triangle. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (who looks like the lanky love-child of Rooney Mara and Zooey Deschanel) serves her purpose and is all but dispatched, much like Isla Fisher's Myrtle Wilson who is given the bare minimum of screen time necessary to set up a crucial plot point for the film's third act. As for Tobey McGuire, his initial voice-overs are cloying but after 20 or so minutes the movie settles into its grooves and the baby-faced man who was Spiderman becomes a satisfactory, if not welcome aspect of the unfolding drama.

The Great Gatsby is a movie that should be seen in theaters; it warrants that much. The performances are solid and the imagery, coupled expertly with the Jay-Z produced soundtrack, more than warrant the price of admission. But exiting the theater, I found myself longing to watch one of Luhrmann's more memorable creations (like R+J or Strictly Ballroom) and arriving home I snatched my personal copy of Gatsby off the shelf and immediately sat down to read Fitzgerald's beautiful words without all of the background noise.

Grade: B

The Great Gatsby opens wide in theaters on May 10.

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