Monday, May 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby / *** (PG-13)

Nick Carraway: Tobey Maguire
Jay Gatsby: Leonardo DiCaprio
Daisy Buchanan: Carey Mulligan
Tom Buchanan: Joel Edgerton
Jordan Baker: Elizabeth Debicki
Myrtle Wilson: Isla Fisher
George Wilson: Jason Clarke
Meyer Wolfsheim: Amitabh Bachchan
Dr. Walter Perkins: Jack Thompson

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Luhrmann & Craig Pearce. Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Running time: 143 min. Rated PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language).

Perhaps what fascinates me so much about cinema is how each and every film has a life of its own. I’m not talking about what happens in the story of the film, although there is that as well. I speak of how the film evolves as an entity in and of itself. Each film has good qualities and bad, and each one comes from a creative mind or rather several. Each film has influences, people and previously existing artistic and political expressions that affect that film in their own way. In the case of movies based on previously produced material, no matter what the medium, that previous incarnation affects them greatly; yet they still exist separately, like a child does from his own parent. Even perception of each film is different and works on each film in different ways. Hell, many people will hate a movie just because of who’s in it.

In the case of Baz Luhrmann’s most recent romantic visual melodrama “The Great Gatsby”, it has to contend with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original book, a previous film treatment and the opinions of everyone who has ever read or seen those versions of this literary allegory of the American Dream. Luhrmann’s reputation has been style over substance, and such is the case with “Gatsby”; but in many ways his style is the substance of this story. He’s attempting to depict the world of pre-depression America as one big party put forth by the filthy rich, spilling out over the poor and discriminated against, and ultimately boiling down to a love triangle between two rich men and the woman who loves them both but can only choose one. Luhrmann’s stylistic direction actually fits this material better than one might think.

The story is told by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, “Spider-Man” trilogy), who is neither of the men in the love triangle, but an outside observer like us. He is seduced by the opulence of this lifestyle, as any of us might be. He’s a failed writer who has turned to Wall Street for his fortune. He moves into a cottage across the Long Island bay from his college best friend Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”) and Tom’s wife and Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”). Next door to Nick is the residence of the elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”), who throws all night parties every weekend that are attended by every person of importance and many who just want to be important on the East Coast. I find myself employing a minor form of exaggeration in my description, which is less than what Luhrmann employs in his production design and direction.

Anyway, the triangle is between the Buchanans and Gatsby, who fell in love with Daisy as a poor soldier about to be sent to Europe in World War I. She assumed he died in the war when she lost contact with him and married into old money with Tom. Tom is a philanderer, who doesn’t respect his marriage, a matter that is obvious to Nick, if not just about anyone. Gatsby has orchestrated his life to find Daisy and fulfill his personal dream of their life together. But where did Gatsby get all his money? Will Daisy still love him? And what do we think of all this?

This is the type of melodramatic material that Luhrmann excels at relaying on screen. His biggest hurdle is that this material is elevated above melodrama by coming from one of the greatest American novels ever written. Luhrmann makes the melodrama obvious, not so obvious is what makes this material an iconic American story. That’s not to say that Fitzgerald’s message is missing in action. The material is so good that it’s hard for Luhrmann to hide it in his stylized photographic overlays and modern soundtrack, even with the gimmick of 3D to further emphasize his untraditional approach.

The fact is this movie is good. It isn’t a masterpiece, like its source material, which makes it difficult to see it for its true value. Luhrmann has made better movies, but he’s also been even more heavy-handed with his style than he is here. The real meaning of Fitzgerald’s story struggles against the stylistic choices, but they can’t hold it back. The allegory of the American dream found here cannot be denied. There is the dream of rising above your beginnings to make a real mark on the world. There is the ubiquitous hand of crime that touches so much about this country’s history. There is the prophetic crash landing of the dreams into the reality of our country’s weaknesses. And finally, there is the romantic dreamer that encompasses all our dreams as Americans, which fuels us to reach beyond what we can achieve and touch greatness.

That is how this film lives its own life. It is not only an artistic expression of these ideas, but it is also a literal example of them. Luhrmann himself reaches beyond his capacity by even attempting to put a novel like “The Great Gatsby” on screen. Yet, even through his somewhat failure, he proves the story’s own point. I don’t think he fails to the degree that many of the film’s detractors do, but then that slamming down of artistic endeavors is another of the American traditions that any grand artistic production must face. Reaching beyond his grasp is what Gatsby does. That’s what Luhrmann does. Fitzgerald’s message tapping away underneath the film makes it worth the life of the film. All the style and glitz works as an example of the dreams we’re reaching for, but in the end they’re as empty as the 3D so well employed by Luhrmann here. And, that’s exactly the point. 

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