By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey MaGuire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Adelaide Clemens, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, and Isla Fisher
There were a number of questions running through my mind that made me want to run the other way when it came to attending a screening of The Great Gatsby. After versions of the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 semi autobiographical novel that cover everything from a 1926 silent film all the way through a 1974 Francis Ford Coppola adaptation starring Robert Redford, why, oh why tell the tale again in 2013? Why would a movie that involves more human drama than glitzy dancing warrant being released in 3D? And why does Baz Luhrmann feel the need to take old-fashioned stories like this and his 1996 rendition of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, mold them into modernism, while at the same time stylize them with the hippest music imaginable? All of these questions worked against the slightest possibility that I could like this, the newest, and yes, hippest, version of The Great Gatsby.
Which makes it all the more surprising that I was actually happy to take the glitzy tour of this never forgotten story for a lot of The Great Gatsby’s 142 minute running time,. Luhrmann’s past tendencies to titillate even the most innate things by filling the surroundings up with gaudiness and glamour always had a way of making me turn my head and plug my ears. Yet they quite distinctly served the story Gatsby was telling remarkably well. Changing the character of Nick Carraway into a patient in a sanitarium we witness writing Gatsby’s story was a risky proposition that is played out quite vigorously throughout the course of the film. At times Fitzgerald’s words literally write themselves on the screen as Carraway types them. It’s a way of storytelling that I wasn’t sure what to make of at first, but grew on me the longer The Great Gatsby went along. It serves the narrative very soundly. It was also nice how Gatsby’s aura is felt all throughout the first half hour of the film, even if he does not make his first appearance onscreen until right after that mark. Luhrmann coordinates convoys to his parties and frames him from the back to make us completely aware that his presence looms. I have not always been on board with Luhrmann’s style, but the decisions he makes in The Great Gatsby are stunning. Whether it be coordinating swooping parties or luminating Mulligan in an almost permanently ardent glow, it fed into the essentials of making an eighty-eight year old story seem relevant today. Lurmann also never misses an opportunity to establish Gatsby’s mansion, and uses many zoom ins and zoom outs to paint pictures of the mansion that seem brighter than the diamond shrouded chandeliers that decorate it. Even the film’s 3D is nicely used, as Luhrmann resists the urge to point objects toward the screen yet shows us everything from swooping shots of Gatsby’s beautiful house to Gatsby skipping a coin in a pool toward us as ways of justifying using the technology for such a non action oriented film.
Unfortunately, when it comes to performances, The Great Gatsby is a big case of hit and miss. The obvious stand out is DiCaprio. When he and Luhrmann first teamed up for Romeo & Juliet, DiCaprio was a bright faced coming of age actor on the cusp of stardom. Now, at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, DiCaprio may not have the time earned lines of say, Redford from ‘74’s version of the story. But he is most certainly a star, and a well-respected one at that. He has one of the most memorable introductions of the year in Gatsby, and the fact that he owns the screen each time he is on didn’t surprise me. Every single time he uses the phrase ‘old sport’ to describe Carraway, it always seems earned, and never got old for me. Maguire, on the other hand, was off and on. His gravelly voice was probably not the best choice to narrate the story (it was fine in small increments throughout Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) but his presence in as important a character (arguably even more so than Gatsby) as Carraway comes more off more as a puzzle with incremented and scattered sections as opposed to one that is fully put together. Which might serve that character well in some circles, but for me was more of a distraction.Edgerton is not only almost unrecognizable, but he is excellent in his lost in the moment role as Daisy’s successful and jealous husband Tom Buchanan. Fisher is also really good as slutty but lovable Myrtle. Yet, one of the worst cases of miscasting comes in the form of Mulligan. Daisy is a role that is futile in telling the story of Gatsby, as she is supposed to come off as the object of attraction (the green light, if you will) and apple of Gatsby’s eye. Yet, I’m not sure whether it was the almost non-existent chemistry between her and DiCaprio (a BIG detriment when telling a love story), or the way they played off each other, I just never bought Mulligan in the role. Which is a shame, because I think she is a tremendous actress.
I also would be remised if I didn’t say when the mystery behind Gatsby and his background is unraveled, Luhrmann and frequent collaborator Craig Pearce’s script starts to do the same. The human drama at its core doesn’t wrap itself tightly as much as it just comes apart, and there are many instances in Gatsby that could have been trimmed. However, even with all of these faults, I would give a slight recommend to checking out The Great Gatsby. It is a timeless mindful tale about what can happen if greed and jealousy get in the way of power. Containing off and on performances, Gatsby nonetheless boasts an enchanting build up to its story, as well as a stunningly beautiful music score by Craig Armstrong. Luhrmann peppers the film with music by Jay-Z (who is also an executive producer on the film), which didn’t bother me much and actually added on to the glitzy feel of Gatsby’s parties. I enjoyed the way each of these songs serve as background to what is going on in the film at each given time. Even if there is an interesting version of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love that made me cringe almost as much as Emily Browning’s rendition of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These.) I said almost.
3.5.out of 5