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Great Gatsby, The (2013)
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by Peter Sobczynski

2 stars

When I arrived at the theater for the screening of "The Great Gatsby," Baz Luhrmann's alternately anticipated and feared (depending on your tolerance for such past efforts of his as "Romeo & Juliet," "Moulin Rouge" and "Australia") adaptation of the 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald classic often cited as the Great American Novel, I was slightly taken aback to discover a lobby filled with people gussied up in white linen suits, flapper dresses and similar Jazz Age outfits. I don't know the full details of who these people were or where they suddenly acquired so much period finery but I can only assume that it was something cooked up by studio publicists to put the audience in a Roaring 20's frame of mind, despite the fact that this stab at authenticity would inevitably fall to pieces the minute that the audience would be required to don their 3-D glasses in order to actually see the film.

Although I usually find such pre-show nonsense to be distracting at best and annoying at worst (I still recall the bizarre afternoon I spent watching the Civil War epic "Gods & Generals" with a theater full of re-enactors in full costume wondering exactly what would happen with the Confederate impersonators once they returned to the streets of Chicago in their outfits), I must admit that in this case, it did help to authentically recreate the era of the Roaring 20's in surprisingly effective detail. After all, the evening started out with people milling about, showing off their outfits and sipping bathtub Mr. Pibbs from the concession stand and a gay time was had by all. Then, in following with the dictates of history, the film finally got underway and the Great Depression was soon at hand.

Ever since the first trailers for the film emerged--promising the kind of eye-popping spectacle that Luhrmann is known for and in 3-D no less, "The Great Gatsby" has been arguably the biggest cinematic question mark of the summer season (not to mention last winter as well, at least until its original holiday premiere date was suddenly scrapped). Would he be the person that would at long last crack the mystery of bringing it to the screen that had so resoundingly defeated Hollywood ever since it was published? Would his usual array of visual pyrotechnics enhance the material or overwhelm it entirely? Would he be one of the rare filmmakers to use 3-D as a legitimate artistic tool and not just a gimmick designed to pry a few more buck away at the box-office?

These are all legitimate questions but after only a reel or two, most moviegoers will have only one on their minds--"Why?" Even if you are a fan of Luhrmann's previous efforts--and I have been to one degree or another--it will be difficult to swallow what he has done here and if you are a fan of the book, it is likely that you will regard it in much the same way as one might regard its central character--initially intriguing, to be sure, but whose vast expenditures of time, money and energy dedicated to create the illusion of substance cannot quite disguise its essentially hollow and insubstantial nature.

For those of you who dozed their way through their English classes during their junior year of high school, I shall offer a brief recap of the narrative while metaphorically shaking my head and wagging my finger in the face of your ignorance. Set during the summer of 1922, the story begins as young Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire), a would-be writer from the Midwest who has halted his pursuit of literary glory to make money as aa bond dealer, rents a small cottage in the area of Long Island known as West Egg--a haven for new-money types--that happens to be right next door to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious man of enormous means who regularly throws lavish parties that attract people from all parts of the world.

Across the lake in the more genteel enclave of East Egg resides Nick's second cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a filthy rich old money type whose allegedly genteel upbringing fails to disguise either his blatant racism or the fact that he is having an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the blowsy wife of an oafish local mechanic (Jason Clarke). One night, Nick is unexpectedly invited to Gatsby's latest do--apparently the only person to ever receive an official invite--and, after meeting his enigmatic host, becomes swept up into his world. an existence so larger-than-life that it almost seems to good to be true. Eventually, some of the mystery of Gatsby is revealed to Nick by Jordan Carver (Elizabeth Debiicki), a friend of Daisy's. It seems that a few years earlier, Daisy and the then-poor Gatsby were in love but after being separated when he went off to Europe to fight in WWI and to study briefly at Oxford, she decided to marry Tom instead of waiting for him to return.

Since then, Gatsby has apparently dedicated his life to winning her back by amassing a fortune of his own, moving into a palatial estate literally right across the lake from hers and throwing an endless series of parties in the hopes that she will happen into one of them and resume their romance. Eventually, Gatsby and Daisy do reunite and everything seems blissful for a while but as the summer comes to an end, romantic illusions inevitably give way to pragmatic reality and the carefully created facade that Gatsby has created crumbles under the strain of jealousy, betrayal, tragedy, violence and the bleated realization that he has been living in a past that never quite existed in the manner that he imagined it had.

Although many people have attempted to bring "The Great Gatsby" to the screen over the years--previous versions have included a silent movie adaptation that is now considered to be lost aside from a few seconds of footage, a 1949 version with Alan Ladd as Gatsby that I have not seen and the infamous 1974 take that proved to be a giant bomb despite the seemingly ideal casting of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Gatsby and Daisy and a screenplay adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola in his last hired-gun work to date as a writer--none of them have been particularly successful and it is easy to see why. Like many truly great novels, "The Great Gatsby" is memorable less for the story that it tells than in the way that Fitzgerald tells it. Face it, the book contains very little dialogue, an overly passive narrator, a narrative that is not exactly long on incident and characters whose motives are left intentionally oblique for the most part. However, Fitzgerald's authorial voice is so striking and powerful that one is literally transported into the world that he is writing about.

The problem with bringing a story like this to the big screen is that the filmmakers have to figure out some way of reconceiving that voice into cinematic terms in way that will help the film come to life in the same way that it did on the page. For example, Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was an undeniably great book that depended almost entirely on Wolfe's voice as a writer but when it was transformed into a film by Brian De Palma, that voice was almost entirely gone and the remainder was just a collection of staged scenes from the book that were largely drained of their power. However, in the few scenes in which De Palma hit upon ways of replicating that voice cinematically--as he did during its justifiably lauded extended opening shot--the results were genuinely thrilling and made the otherwise mundane material seem even more disappointing by comparison.

By adding his usual kitchen-sink visual approach and a pounding hip-hop-influence soundtrack put together by Jay-Z, Luhrmann clearly hoped to find a cinematic manner of allowing viewers to be consumed and enraptured by the jumbo-sized nature of Gatsby's existence in much the same way that Nick has and for maybe the first 20-30 minutes, it seems as though he may have actually done just that. Some of the early scenes are impressive to behold and the massive party sequence that culminates in our first real glimpse of Gatsby--with fireworks in the sky and Gershwin on the soundtrack, no less--is so exhilarating that I couldn't imagine how Luhrmann could possibly top it. (It almost makes you wish that he had completely thrown caution to the wind and just made it a musical a la "Moulin Rouge.")

As it turns out, he can't and proceeds to spend the next two hours proving just that by offering up a non-stop orgy of visual excess that turns out to rival his central character in terms of using glitziness in an attempt to create the extraordinary out of the extra-ordinary. I suppose that an argument could be made that the increasingly mechanized nature of the spectacle being presented is meant to parallel Gatsby's increasingly joyless attempts to provide a sense of heedless excess but to these eyes, the boredom on display is inadvertent rather than deliberate and all the more unfortunate as a result. In essence, he has taken one of the great books of all time and turned it into just another Baz Luhrmann film and not even one that would be near the top of the list unless it was alphabetical.

At least in that case, Luhrmann's stumbles can be partially forgiven on the basis that they are errors borne of ambition but other regards, what he has done with the material is just as profoundly square as what one might find in an especially uninspired high school production of the story. The screenplay that he has co-written with Craig Pearce is a real mess that knows Fitzgerald's words but not the music. Like Gatsby himself, they have attempted to inflate his romance into some grandly tragic affair when the whole point of the book is that their relationship is anything but that. All of the symbolic elements that Fitzgerald magically weaved into his text--the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock, the yellow roadster, Gatsby's shirts--are brought thuddingly to life with all the subtlety of a diorama produced by a student who waited until the last second to do their assignment.

Along the same lines, they prove conclusively that while Fitzgerald's prose has no equal on the printed page, it is much less effective when spoken aloud, especially when being utilized as narration--even the closing lines of the story, arguably the most famous finale in American literature, feels kind of clunky in this setting. Luhrmann & Pearce even extend the agony by giving the film an absolutely unnecessary framing device that has Nick as a recovering alcoholic writing Gatsby's story as part of his therapy--the gimmick of having a character writing the story that we are watching being the lazy screenwriter's go-to device for adapting works that are deemed to be unadaptable, a move that didn't work for "On the Road" and is a bigger failure here. (This gimmick did work when David Cronenberg applied it to "Naked Lunch" but in that one, he not only had the typewriters talking back to the actors, he often gave them the better lines of dialogue.)

Although it has also become more and more apparent over the course of his films that Luhrmann is not especially interested in getting performances out of his actors, Leonardo DiCaprio nevertheless manages to rise above the multicolored muck with a surprisingly effective turn that encompasses Gatsby's inherently elusive nature in a far more believable manner than Robert Redford was able to accomplish when he played the part. Of course, having worked with Luhrmann before, DiCaprio was presumably used to his approach but his fellow actors seem to have been overwhelmed by the chaos surrounding them. Carey Mulligan is a wonderful actress, of course, but between the directorial overload and the fact that Daisy Buchanan is a character that is almost impossible to truly pin down, she comes across as surprisingly vague and lost throughout, both on her own and with DiCaprio. Face it, when you have made a version of "The Great Gatsby" in which Gatsby strikes more sparks with Nick than with Daisy, you have some problems.

Among the others, Tobey Maguire's wan turn as Nick proves once and for all that whatever his qualities, he is no Sam Waterston. Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke are magnetic actors as well but they come off here as nothing more than one-note buffoons that make the bad guy in "Moulin Rouge" seem subtle and nuanced by comparison. In one of the more bewildering casting decisions of recent memory, Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan has been cast in the key supporting role of Jewish crime boss Meyer Wolfsheim without changing the ethnicity of the part, which gets a bit distracting once the inevitable anti-Semitic remarks from Tom start up. As for the supporting actresses, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki makes the most of her brief scenes as Jordan Baker and also demonstrate that she could easily win first prize at a Rooney Mara lookalike contest while Isla Fisher demonstrates admirable hang time as the doomed Myrtle.

"The Great Gatsby" may be a bad film but it is by no means a complete disaster and in a weird way, that may be its biggest failing. If a film as wildly ambitious as this cannot be a complete success, it should at least have the grace to be the kind of total failure that sears itself into mind of anyone who encounters it so that they never forget that it existed. Alas, what is on display is just another botched adaptation of a classic book that will soon be forgotten by everyone except for high-school juniors planning on using it as a visual form of Cliff's Notes instead of reading the book like they should. Audiences will no doubt turn up in droves for at least its first weekend, some may dig the clothes and the music and the girls may continue to swoon over DiCaprio. And yet, when it is all over, to paraphrase a writer of some note, they will beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the theater showing "Iron Man 3."

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23937&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/09/13 16:05:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/25/17 Anne Selby couldn't get into it 2 stars
11/27/13 Shaun A Stylistically rendered introduction to the book for those who haven't read it. 3 stars
11/22/13 Patricia this movie was exactly like the book, which made some of the dialogue awkward 3 stars
11/07/13 Joebeducci Could I get some feedbck on www.squidoo.com/movie-review-the-great-gatsby-living-the-dream 4 stars
8/30/13 Mike Allen A cinematic tour de force 5 stars
8/05/13 ALICE Pretty boring... 2 stars
6/15/13 Lauren disappointed but it wasn't horrible 3 stars
6/13/13 gc book is far superior 2 stars
6/07/13 Carol S Worth seeing, but wasn't as great as I expected 3 stars
6/02/13 JAY Z 1920's era movie with Rap music. Puke. 1 stars
5/27/13 Bert A movie rich in story and in character. 5 stars
5/18/13 Kevin Lause Never boring...but read the book! 3 stars
5/10/13 Allison All Gliter and no substance. 1 stars
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  10-May-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-Aug-2013


  DVD: 27-Aug-2013

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