Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: "The Great Gatsby"

To say I've been apprehensive about this adaptation is an understatement.  While I think that Moulin Rouge is sheer brilliance and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliette was a truly mesmerizing affair, Baz Lurman always worries me.  The more I heard about this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, the more concerned I became.  Unfortunately, this time I couldn't be convinced otherwise.  And I really wanted to be.

Gatsby has often been touted as one of the great American novels, written at a time when America was more prosperous than it had ever been and New York was the centre of it all.  It has been for some time, a novel that I avoided reading as it is always so celebrated, I thought it couldn't possibly be as good as everyone says it is.  That said, given that it's under two-hundred pages I thought I would take a stroll through Fitzgerald's world before taking a peak at how Lurman imagined it.  And I'm certainly glad that I did, although it is a little bittersweet for me, as it highlights how terribly close Lurman was to actually understanding what made the story so compelling to readers for so long.

Long Island, 1922.  Enter Nick Carraway, a miswestern graduate intent on learning the, "bond market" and making his fortune on the celebrated east coast.  Carraway rents a small cottage in West Egg, a section of Long Island mostly filled with huge mansions and finds that his next door neighbour, Mr. Gastby turns out to be quite the enigma.  While the basic plot (and Carraway's part in it) are quite simple, the real pull of the novel is in the language, it's in the breaths between sentences, in the things that aren't said.  With that in mind, a film should be the perfect medium in which to present those silences, those unspoken realities of the character's minds.   For a novel that trades on appearance vs. reality and makes its mark with characters who speak little but say volumes, I was really hoping to see the subtlety play out on screen.  They certainly had the time for it, with a running time of two hours and twenty-three minutes.

So, without giving too much away (for those who haven't seen the film or read the book) let's get down to why this film is so disappointing.  I actually found that the choices made by the product team were so badly pitched in my mind that it actually turned me INTO a book-snob!  The film begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire) in a sanitorium as a result of the events that are about to unfold onscreen.  There is a well meaning doctor who asks him pointed questions about the character of each of the people he mentions, giving Carraway an opportunity to tell you all about who these people are.  This is what happens when you read the sparknotes and then make a movie.  You're about to show us two hours of these people's lives and their behaviour, you don't need to tell me about who they are, just show me.  In addition, since Carraway ends up (by the mid-point of the film) taking up pen and paper to write down the story, why bother with the sanitorium at all?  It's a distracting point that puffs up Carraway's role in the events and lends no depth or intrigue.  Certainly a device for having Nick tell the story was needed but if he's going to write a book anyway, why not just start with that?  Overall I felt the role of Nick was overused.  In fact, during a pivotal scene between Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) in which we're meant to be swept up in the moment with them, Lurman cuts to an insert of Nick just staring and it completely pulls one out of the moment.  We get it, he's watching.  It's not as if using a character to give the audience a stand in and point of entry into the story is new, it's pretty standard convention of modern film.  This is film making 101.  It really could have been done much better.

This is what's ultimately so crushing about this film: it has all the elements that could have made it incredible.  Unfortunately, it ends up falling just this side of the mark on so many things that the overall feeling is one of disappointment.  DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Gatsby, the well-to-do young mystery man who sweeps into town and takes the New York party scene by storm.  He certainly has the talent and the drive to  play the part and it appears to be Lurman's direction that falls short of him.  Mulligan too is perfectly selected as Daisy Buchanan, the woman who lights up a room and makes everyone feel as though, "there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see."  But of course it's all a pretense, and Mulligan has the chops to pull that off if not (again) for the direction that the performance is guided in.  In Lurman's hands the love story of Daisy and Gatsby-- at once confused and beautiful-- becomes the unquestionably cheap affair of two youngsters who grow up and learn better.

What makes the story so remarkable, something that generation after generation comes back to, is not the plot points themselves but the space between what we see and what we feel in our hearts to be true.  There are so many points in the film (too many to name) where a look or a glance, a line or a significant movement would have conveyed exactly what needed to be said.  Instead, the cast flounces about speaking plainly about everything that's going on and-- just in case you missed it-- telling you exactly what to think and feel about everyone.  An otherwise rich and varied cast of characters are all reduced to their specific plot point and given no room to provide any substance.  There is just SOOOO much expository dialogue it's revolting.  At one point Nick and Gatsby have a conversation about repeating your past and Gastby says, not one but THREE TIMES, "You can repeat the past."  Yeah yeah, former glory, we get it Leo, you're playing the same socially climbing charmer but this isn't Titanic and you can't repeat that glory.

To be fair the soundtrack idea (i.e. aligning modern Hip-Hop's influence on Pop music with the Jazz age influence on classical) is inspired.  While I'm not sure the choice of Jay-Z as soundtrack producer was such a great idea, the use of the music (as with all Lurman's films) was quite will done (though not as much of a part of the film as I would have expected).  And the costumes and staging are quite extraordinary (ah what a big budget can do) but other than that, I'm afraid there's not much to recommend it.

Is it worth seeing?  Not unless you feel like staring at beautiful costumes and sets with cotton in your ears for two hours but it might be worth flipping through when it comes to DVD.

My rating?  2 out of 4.
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Book Snob: those who attend a film adaptation knowing beyond a shadow that the book was better, allowing no part of the movie to penetrate their certainty, and spend the entire film pointing out things that were done differently in the book.

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