Release: Friday, May 10, 2013
A colorful cast and crew give F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel its most contemporary treatment yet in 2013, with The Great Gatsby refocused through the lenses of Baz Luhrmann. With an alignment of stars that immediately gives its characters life, and a costume/make-up department that rivals (and could possibly be superior to) that of Les Miserables, the film is an unsatisfying mixture of style over substance. It looks terrific, but the pizzazz is clearly indicative of a film that, script-wise, is dangerously insecure — just like one of our lead characters here.
I suppose one of the more important things to note is that the acting is not to blame for a general lack of engagement in the storytelling; Leo first and foremost, fully embodies the essence of Jay Gatsby and is thankfully not a disappointment, so you can breathe a sigh of relief there. As well, Carey Mulligan (as Daisy Buchanan) and Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s brute of a husband, Tom) are at their best and Tobey Maguire manages Nick Carraway fairly well.
It is unfortunately with Mr. Maguire that I found one of the film’s larger, and ultimately, more frustrating, structural flaws that prevented Gatsby from becoming the emotional spectacle it truly could have been. We are swept into the story with a narrative from Nick Carraway, who’s setting up time and place of the events that would ultimately fill the actual story. This was a completely unnecessary layer and if anything seemed to diminish the significance of the story of Jay Gatsby and his parties. Not only that, but the narrative — which is not limited to the opening five or ten minutes, either — keeps us at an arm’s length of the characters stuck inside Fitzgerald’s vision of the Roaring 20’s. Each time we hear the voiceovers from Maguire’s slow, labored delivery, we’re taken out of the moment a little. This happens more than a few times.
When the narrative isn’t there dictating the story to us, like getting rid of the subtitles, we get a story about the great and mysterious Jay Gatsby and of his travails finding his long lost love, Daisy, with innocent “ole sport” Nick Carraway merely getting caught in the crossfire. The heart of this passionate love affair — from what I recall of reading the book in high school — remains faithful to the sequence of events Fitzgerald penned in 1925, and thanks to a select few scenes, it succeeds at times to strike at the emotional core of what made the novel of so long ago, so mesmerizing and dramatic.
Alas, these moments were sporadically popping up throughout the film, whilst a camera guided us haphazardly throughout the land that constituted the narrative perimeters of the story — the serene waters, the sweeping forested lands, the city skyline set against the filth and grime of city workers shoveling dirt and coal.
A variety of wide-angle shots, sudden deep and dramatic zooms, and wide scans and panoramas were utilized, which actually succeeded in trapping us inside this world and giving the impression that we were being physically moved from one distinct location (where something happens) to another (where something else happens).Going with the 3D glasses, however, might make you a little nauseous after awhile, since Luhrmann is intent on moving throughout this landscape as though he were on board a roller coaster.
So it is, again: the special effects get in the way.
Here’s the thing you ought to know about this recent adaptation: it’s not a ‘bad’ film in the general sense that it fails to entertain or engage on any level. I mean for crying out loud this is a Leonardo DiCaprio picture, after all.
But it did have a standard to reach, and unfortunately for me, this was not met.
Beginning with the aforementioned wild editing in places, there was far too much emphasis on explaining the development of the relationships among our main cast, when the film would have benefitted far more from simply doing the developing. In other words, they could have done without half of the narration and the meat of the story would have still made perfect sense. Beyond this issue, though, lay a host of others.
The costumes looked great — Carey Mulligan is simply dazzling as Daisy and is pretty much exactly how I imagined her to look; the partiers all spectacularly clad in exquisite Golden Twenties fashion. The look is so overwhelming that we forget we are here to watch a story being told. And the use of Jay-Z, Will-I-Am and Florence & The Machines (to name a few) in the soundtrack was seriously out of sync with the feel of this particular re-imagining.
As well, the big reveals are not all that revelatory since (well, I guess if you’ve read the book the entire film won’t be a surprise) we can see the event coming from miles away, and especially with the narration, any strong anticipation of what may be coming later is quickly squashed flat. It’s as though we are being told exactly how and what to think and feel in these moments.
There were realistically only two ways this 2013 version could have gone: truly spectacular or. . . well, truly unspectacular. I’d rather not write it off as a disaster, but I left with a rather hollow feeling in my gut when I was hoping to be elated by the charismatic power we always seem to get from DiCaprio, and Carey Mulligan is a reliably romantic dramatist as well. While the two did seem to have strong chemistry, the script did not allow us to ever really get close enough to these characters to truly care. So, I’m not going to write this off as a disaster, but I can’t say I was pleased. Maybe that is just the challenge of creating this kind of a movie, though. Based on a novel that was rather light on pages, it had to balance a good number of elements to please what has become obvious as a much wider, younger and more impatient audience.
Recommendation: I cannot say that this in any way lived up to my expectations in terms of the intensity and intrigue of the storyline, but from what we were seeing in the weeks and months leading up to this film, that is exactly what we get for a majority of the film: people looking spectacular. Wealthy. Carefree. Strangely immortalized in their reckless abandonment. For a while this all works well, but for substance we need a little bit more and it’s probably been done better in earlier adaptations. Still, more than worth it for fans of DiCaprio.
Running Time: 143 mins.
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