Mark Reviews Movies

The Great Gatsby (2013)

THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language)

Running Time: 2:23

Release Date: 5/10/13


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 9, 2013

At least Baz Luhrmann's visually kaleidoscopic adaptation F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel quotes the famous final sentence of the book, although it's after having proved that it possesses no awareness of what that statement actually says. One could almost forgive The Great Gatsby its anachronistic soundtrack featuring modern hip hop music as a reflection of the anything-goes attitude of those parties at the estate in West Egg (The movie does infuse some period-appropriate jazz into the soundtrack, including "Rhapsody in Blue"—although two years too early—to introduce the eponymous dreamer/sucker). One could ignore that Luhrmann maintains a glossy visual aesthetic throughout the entire movie—even after the veil of the phony sophistication of the affluent lifestyle drops—as stylistic oversight.

Far more difficult, though, is to absolve this version's ceaseless forward momentum. The movie beats on, and in its rush to convey the extravagance of the Roaring Twenties and—when that part is complete—the melodramatic beats of Fitzgerald's story (which, on the page, is not at all melodramatic), The Great Gatsby loses that final, essential truth of the novel—that, try as they might, these characters and this world are not making any progress against the current of their memories.

Everything here has been amplified to 11. There is no room for introspection or melancholy, only big gestures or poses in the story's comparatively calmer moments of interpersonal communication and grand social events with blizzards of colorful confetti and streamers, flappers dancing on any elevated platform they can find, and musicians spread about everywhere. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's screenplay uses a lot of Fitzgerald's text during and in between these displays of prominent emotions and blissful debauchery.

At times, the words appear handwritten or typed on screen like smoke, which is accurate, given that the script cannot grasp it. It's all surface—shimmery and sordid—even when the shallowness of surface-level thinking becomes clear. This is Fitzgerald as seen through the eyes of a gossip columnist.

The realization that the movie misses the point comes fairly early, as we meet our constant narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, eyes wide and mouth agape). The narrative is flashback-oriented, with Nick relating his experiences of living among the affluent to the doctor of a sanatorium, as if disillusionment with the careless lifestyles of the rich and regionally famous is the same as insanity.

In rapid-fire disclosure (Luhrmann's camera, too, is always panning here or there, dollying back or forth, or zooming in or out), we learn his story of a young man who comes to New York in 1922 to work on Wall Street, rents an inexpensive cottage next door to an elusive millionaire, visits his second cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan, spirits dashed by life, which, if one knows the book, isn't right at all) in the old-money area of East Egg, reunites with his old college friend and Daisy's caddish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, gruff and antagonistic), learns of Tom's affair with the wife (Isla Fisher) of a struggling garage owner (Jason Clarke), and watches the parties at his mysterious neighbor's mansion until one day he's invited to one of the soirees. The man is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, determined but distant), and he has a plan for his new acquaintance—a favor to ask of him.

Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy for tea so that he can have a "chance" meeting with her. They were once lovers before Gatsby went off to fight in the Great War; he's moved to West Egg to be close to her (The green light at the end of her estate's pier calls to him in a haunting, mournful collection of strings) and try to get her attention. They reignite their affair, while Tom starts a "little investigation" into the means of the wealth of this man who is so clearly taken with his wife.

Strangely, Luhrmann and Pearce have interpreted the story of Gatsby and Daisy into one of star-crossed lovers. This variation of Daisy is sincere—an ingénue torn between two men she loves. If it doesn't fit the character as Fitzgerald plainly intends, the characterization is at least in line with the movie's simpler pleasures, which amount to taking in the polish of well-designed sets (Daisy's introduction in a room drenched in flowing white curtains is particularly memorable) and the sheen of the computer-generated ones (The sight of the city's skyscrapers being constructed in a sweeping pullback shot is a doozy, while Gatsby's race through city streets in his custom roadster shows the movie's occasional technological limits).

That's the problem, though: Luhrmann's excesses run counterintuitive to Fitzgerald's purpose. It's never entirely fair to put too much weight on a movie adaptation based on the source material, but with The Great Gatsby, one must allow an exception. The particulars of the text may be here, but the movie is far from faithful to the novel's aim. At the minimum, we must expect that much, otherwise—as the movie makes apparent—the impact is lost.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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