Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Faithful to the material, but completely lacking the soul

It has been 12 years since I last read "The Great Gatsby." I read it for a high school freshmen-year book report and I got a "C" on it. Back then, I wasn't as much an astute observer of the arts as I am now (please hold your laughter), but I do remember the story fairly well. While a lot of the details have since been lost on me, watching Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" finally gave me the chance to think about the ways in which the novel is an allegory to the "American Dream," how it's a cautionary tale, and in some ways, eerily predicted the Great Depression that took place the following decade.

So if this movie did anything for me, it made me wanna go find my "Great Gasby" copy which is probably in an attic somewhere, collecting dust. And while the film actually does a decent job telling the basic story, the filmmakers made a series of bold decisions that just did not pan out. It was a bold experiment and I am not here to hate on Baz Luhrmann, not at all. I have nothing against the director and wanted this film to be a genuine success, but there's no arguing that the presentation of this material was badly botched. That Luhrmann's style just does not properly represent what "Gatsby" is really about, that it completely de-legitimizes the Jazz Age in which the film is set in, and most importantly, that it's completely lacking in any subtlety or character focus to make us care about Nick Carraway or Jay Gatsby. A fatal flaw, if there could ever be one.

Anyone who passed 9th grade English probably knows the story, but let's rehash a bit to give some context. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to Long Island, New York in the village of West Egg. He lives across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and of course, he lives right next to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The man, the myth, the mystery. Who is he? What's his true story? How did he get to be so rich? Nick gets invited to one of Gatsby's famous parties and he's stunned. Gatsby throws extraordinarily lavish parties where everyone in town shows up. Well, almost everyone.

Gatsby longs for Daisy Buchanan. Someone he has been pining after for five years now, but she's married. He has moved to Long Island and become this great success, all for Daisy. Gatsby has, by anyone else's standards, lived the American Dream, but his dream is a life with Daisy. A woman who is so close, right there within his grasp, but he just can't have her.

Told in more depth, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you have yourself what many literary critics call "The Great American Novel." Adapted by Baz Luhrmann, and you have a movie that contains these characters and tells the basic elements of this story, but in a completely soulless manner. By putting so much focus and attention onto these glamorous parties, Luhrmann completely misses the point. "The Great Gatsby" is supposed to be a cautionary tale of excess, and yet the movie parades it and drenches itself in it.

Because of that, he completely leaves his characters in the dust. Nick Carraway is given little to do and we're given so little reason to care about Jay Gatsby that when he finally reaches his fateful end, it's nowhere near as heartbreaking as it's supposed to be. Why should we care about Gatsby? About his love for Daisy? Daisy is given even less to do except to look pretty.

Luhrmann treats every major event in the novel like a giant spectacle, completely overdoing it, and undermining the meaning behind all of it. We first see Gatsby in a parade of fireworks, the tender romance between Daisy and Gatsby is completely undone by a Lana Del Rey song that is repeated over and over again, and the murder of Jay Gatsby is so over-the-top, it's laughable.

And it's not Luhrmann's fault, really. This is the director that he is. These are the types of movies that he likes to make and he's completely within his right to do so. And I hate to judge a movie based on its source material, but we're simply not given any reason to care about these characters. None. Tom Buchanan has been relegated to typical stock villain and Nick Carraway is narrating this story to his psychiatrist, which is the worst mistake of all. When are filmmakers going to learn that films like these don't work this way? There is simply no reason to "flash forward" to "present-day" Nick Carraway, it's a complete waste of time. It drags the story even further, making the movie longer than it has to be. While I believe, for sure, that the movie must be told through Nick's POV, there is simply no need to do it this way.

The last point of contention is the music. And again, this is Luhrmann's decision, his style. I understand why he choose the music that he did, but unfortunately, it just doesn't pan out. A novel that's supposed to be a celebration of the Jazz Age is completely undermined and de-legitimized by using hip hop music instead. Lyrically, the music fits, but musically, it doesn't.

As far as the acting, everyone does a solid job with what little they are given. If anyone in particular stands out, it's Joel Edgerton who really did a wonderful job, thanks to his meatier role. Maguire and DiCaprio, however, have done these character types so often that it just doesn't register any surprise. 

Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" has dazzling images, but no soul. And without a soul, this is just a movie about some rich guy pining over some rich girl that just happens to be set in the '20s. Without giving us a reason to care for Gatsby, Daisy, or Nick Carraway, any deeper meaning that can be perceived from the story is completely lost here. I was able to put the movie into context only from reading the novel. That "The Great Gatsby" was in anyway watchable can only be thanks to its source material. Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" is a perfect example of style-over-substance gone wrong.

Grade: D+

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