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Entries in Great Gatsby/The [2013] (1)

Sunday
May122013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

A Pose By Any Other Name

Baz Luhrman is ridiculous. I've long admired him as a visionary director of movies I can't stand, and his latest--a gaudy, parodic 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby--did nothing to change my mind. Employing the same clown-school mania as Moulin Rouge!, while simultaneously not being a musical, the film also manages to drain all subtext from F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal American novel while beating us over the head with pseudo-social-messages that only a crack-head would derive from the source material. I read half the book in high school; based on these results, I suspect Luhrman listened to half the Cliff's Notes on Audible while perusing Art Deco Magazine.

I'm all for creative license, but when your framing device hinges on Tobey Maguire as a disillusioned old man in a mental institution--narrating his descent from space cadet to sad space cadet--there's not enough helium on the planet to suspend my disbelief. Maguire plays the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, as such a squeaky-voiced non-presence that I kept having to remind myself he's A) allegedly a full-grown man, and B) not a corporate prototype for human wallpaper, and C) the doorway to an interesting story.

It's 1922, and Carraway has just moved to New York City (adjacent) to make it big in the booming world of finance. He buys a small house just across the river from his cousin, Daisy (Carrey Mulligan), and her crazy-rich husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). His neighbor is a skulking Bruce Wayne prototype named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an impossibly wealthy recluse whose fortunes are as elusive as his presence at his manor's lavish weekend parties. When Gatsby finally reveals himself--after a really, really, really, really, really* long series of extravagant, get-to-the-point tertiary character introductions, he turns out to be a bit of a kook.

Thankfully, DiCaprio makes him a compelling kook. Suave, funny, and guardedly earnest, the actor goes a long way in selling the charms of a character we'll soon come to loathe (if, of course, "we" have any good sense, unlike Mr. Carraway). It turns out Daisy and Gatsby were once a thing, but Gatsby returned from World War I without a penny to his name and felt unworthy of asking his beautiful, old-money princess to marry him. Five years later, aided by a fortune built on bootlegging and market rigging, Gatsby has set up shop across the way from his beloved (he's also modern literature's prototypical stalker, it turns out), and is intent to use Carraway as his opening salvo against Tom Buchanan's marriage.

Luhrman's The Great Gatsby has two major problems, one of which is, I guess, fundamental to the book, and the other draws unhelpful and unintended scrutiny to that fatal flaw. From a storytelling perspective, there's not a sympathetic or interesting character anywhere in sight. This is blasphemy, I know--especially coming from someone who couldn't be bothered to complete or revisit the novel--but everyone in Fitzgerald's world is a fool (if Luhrman's interpretation of it is to be believed, which I don't know that it should be).

Carraway believes Gatsby to be the embodiment of hope and virtue, even as he's stealing brides, operating an empire of illegal booze and fraudulent investments, and covering up vehicular manslaughter. The object of his affection, Daisy, is a vacuous, blubbering, wad of pale taffy that any objective man with standards would just as soon leave stuck to the floor. In fact, the only reasonably sympathetic character here is Tom, who at least acknowledges his vices. Sure, he  may be a cheating, boozing, out-of-touch son of privilege, but when Gatsby forces Daisy to tell her husband that she never loved him (in a silly, drawn-out moment that's sure to net at Gatsby least two Razzies), the look of heartbreak on Edgerton's face sold me on his being the real star of this movie.

I think I've spoken enough about Carraway, and Maguire's "Psst! I'm over here" performance.

There's no denying the sweeping romance of The Great Gatsby, but it's the same idiot love triangle one might find week after week on COPS--which makes Luhrman's telling of it so puzzling. I imagine it will be very difficult for young audiences (let's face it, this thing was made for children) to connect with the bizarre motives, sloppy pining, and dumb decisions made by every character at every turn. Why not be bold with the material, then, and spruce up Fitzgerald a bit? Give Jay and the gang problems that are relatable in any era?

Too difficult, I guess. Yes, it's much easier to just throw digital cheese and a Remedial English student's ideas about what "The Roaring 20's" looked like up on the big screen. Though not as gaudy as Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby is equally sinister in hiding its lack of substance behind noise, flash, and elaborate sets and costumes. Worse yet, everyone speaks in the hyper-corny, old-Hollywood patois that comedians like Patton Oswalt use to ridicule old movies.

In a bizarre twist, many early scenes play out against a hip-hop soundtrack. Ah, yes, there's nothing like listening to Jay-Z rap about empowerment and luxury while watching somber black men serve white fat-cats lunch.

I highly recommend skipping this movie and checking out one of 2011's overlooked gems, The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson know that he was a huge fan of Fitzgerald's Gatsby (one of his earliest writing exercises was to type out the entire book to get a feel for the author's rhythms). The Rum Diary is Thompson's Gatsby: the early work sat in a drawer for decades and features a similar, troubled trio fighting for love and purpose in 1950s San Juan. It's got substance, heart, beautiful (natural) locations, and a protagonist who won't make you want to chug a Red Bull.

Wrapping up the review at hand, The Great Gatsby is like George Lucas' Star Wars prequels: technologically amazing (I guess), well-acted (enough), and brimming with the illusion of time worthiness. But there's nothing here that warrants spending two-and-a-half hours with these moneyed morons in a theatre. You'd be better off with the book--or so I've read.

*Sorry, I just had a flashback to my Great Gatsby book report.