Saturday, January 18, 2014

Messy, Musical, Melodramatic: The Great Gatsby Flops!

The Good: The humor works well, Decent acting, One or two moments of direction
The Bad: Pacing, Horrible soundtrack, Dull character progression, Most of the direction, Voiceovers
The Basics: Baz Lurhmann adapts The Great Gatsby with an overwhelming sense of (poor) style over substance.

One of the most-hyped films of 2013 was The Great Gatsby and given how many people recommended the film to me, I felt some compulsion to watch the movie. Having finally taken in Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, I find myself in the minority once again. Luhrmann overwhelms what could have been an amazing cinematic rendition of the novel with an erratic sense of his style: while I am usually loathe to rate movies higher based on them possessing great special effects, with The Great Gatsby I find myself unwilling to limit my negative impression of the effects to only one of the ten customary points: in other words, the special effects in The Great Gatsby are so distractingly bad that they make the film drag and they destroy the positive aspects of the movie.

The Great Gatsby uses a modern soundtrack (Jay-Z, Beyonce, etc.) in its period piece in a way that seems like Luhrmann is trying to be trendy and edgy, but is executed with such sloppiness that it guts the resonance of the film almost immediately. Even worse are the visual effects. Luhrmann makes a conscious choice to change the film grain on many of his wide, party shots. This is completely distracting and pulls the viewer out of the realism of the film. The net result is a movie whose characters tell a story that should be interesting, but is so poorly presented that it becomes excruciating to sit through. And I write this as one who recalls loving the novel The Great Gatsby. As my wife noted, “For a movie with such an interesting mystery surrounding the protagonist, this movie sucked!”

In Prohibition Era, Post-World War I New York City, Nick Carraway is suffering from insomnia, depression and alcoholism and to relieve his symptoms, his doctor recommends he writes down his story. Carraway tells the story of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and his neighbor, J. Gatsby. Gatsby lives in the mansion next to the small home Carraway is in and Carraway travels to the other side of the Bay to visit Daisy and her husband Tom. After a drunken day with Tom, Tom’s mistress, and their friends, Carraway is invited to a party at Gatsby’s mansion. There, he meets the reclusive Gatsby (few of the party guests actually know who Gatsby is and only Carraway received an invitation to the party). Soon, Gatsby is taking Carraway around town and trying to convince the stock broker that he is trustworthy.

Gatsby asks Carraway for a favor (through a mutual friend); for Nick to invite Daisy over for tea. Carraway complies and he begins to learn of the convoluted history between Daisy and Gatsby and their affair that ended five years prior when Gatsby did not return from the War and Daisy married Tom. As Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their romance, Tom begins to investigate Gatsby’s obscured past. Carraway is drawn into the web of lies surrounding Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby and witnesses the destruction of multiple lives around him.

It’s hard for me to tell what Baz Luhrmann hoped to accomplish with The Great Gatsby. Was he trying to make a modern reinterpretation of the 1920s? The soundtrack seems to suggest that. Was he trying to make a film that captured the tone and feeling of the past? The film grain seems to suggest that. Was he going for a literal translation of The Greaty Gatsby for the screen? Toby Maguire’s unceasing voiceovers as Nick Carraway seem to suggest that (as he is thus able to deliver some of Fitzgerald’s best lines from the book that were not in the form of dialogue). Is he trying to make a smart character-driven movie? Leonardo DiCaprio’s ever-changing accent as Gatsby brilliantly shows the viewer what they need to know (that Gatsby’s character is shifty in nature), though that sort of intelligence is the exception, rather than the rule.

What Baz Luhrmann makes instead is a mess. Lacking one cohesive vision or idea, The Great Gatsby seems to take the shotgun approach and the film is bright and musical the way that Baz Luhrmann is known for. Unfortunately, it adds up to nothing nearly as special or interesting as the viewer would hope. The soap operatic nature of the love parallelogram that the main characters in The Great Gatsby are engaged in is exaggerated in the film.

Nick Carraway is well-presented by Toby Maguire, voiceovers notwithstanding. Carraway is reserved, but lacks the nervous quality of most of Maguire’s characters and the result is a more confident, less geeky Maguire which makes Carraway easy to watch. He becomes an interesting conduit to experience the life and times of Gatsby.

Leonardo DiCaprio is good as J. Gatsby, though it is Joel Edgerton who steals The Great Gatsby as Tom Buchanan. While some might be wowed by Carey Mulligan as Daisy, it’s hard to blame Baz Luhrmann for her. The character is virtually impossible to cast, but Mulligan was a particularly white bread option for her and she is much more bland than vivacious as Daisy. Sadly, she does not have the on-screen gravitas to make viewers believe that Gatsby and Tom would compete over her. But Edgerton . . . Edgerton plays Tom as menacing, charismatic, and smart. Despite being an incredibly unlikable individual, Tom is completely credible for all of the range of emotions he goes through. That type of transition can only be sold effectively by a wonderful actor and Joel Edgerton lives up in The Great Gatsby. Edgerton is tight-lipped and carries his body with a tension that makes his character seem angry under the surface in virtually every scene. Quite simply, he rocks.

Sadly, the Baz Luhrmann interpretation of The Great Gatsby does not. The film is a drawn-out mess that uses a few key literary elements and combines them with over-the-top moviemaking to make a film that ultimately adds up to less than what it should have been.


For other works with Joel Edgerton, please visit my reviews of:
The Odd Life Of Timothy Green
Smokin’ Aces
Revenge Of The Sith
Attack Of The Clones

For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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