Friday, May 10, 2013

Better Than Good: “The Great Gatsby”

Film Review by Maggie Hames
Books and movies are different in just about every way media CAN be different. But mainly, in books, unfixed images are created in the reader’s mind and are up to infinite interpretation. In a movie, ideas become fixed as particular actors, art direction choices, editing choices, or cinematographic choices. These images are open to endless analysis, but not endless interpretation. The best literary adaptations (for my money) translate a story to the screen; they don’t just transfer it. Just about the nicest compliment I can give to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is that it is an interesting translation of a book to film, with innovative, even thought-provoking choices that convey more emotional depth than any screen version of this book has ever achieved. This is, simply put, the BEST screen Gatsby. And overall, it’s pretty great indeed.

Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in the
foreground of a stunning mise-en-scene.
With a PG13 rating (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language) they are trying for a wide audience, and I’m betting that a lot of teens will enjoy this film. The visual sensibility Lurhmann used in his 2001 film, Moulin Rouge—especially a camera quickly flying from one space to the next—is put to good use in The Great Gatsby. Going in, I figured that even if Lurhmann’s Gatsby didn’t hold up as a narrative, his film was sure to be visually spectacular. And it was. And the good news is that the narrative holds up as well. Lurhmann seems to have a great feel for the source material as well as the other film (especially the Jack Clayton 1974) versions of Gatsby. He makes a few knowing references, giving a pal of Jordan Baker the line, “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” as he pulls Jordan away from Nick Carraway. This line was delivered (more hilariously than memorably) by Mia Farrow’s Daisy in Jack Clayton’s version of the film—a version I’d say made all the wrong narrative choices. Another scene where Lurhmann beats Clayton hands down is the scene where Gatsby tosses his expensive shirts at Daisy. The emotional moment between Jay and Daisy in this Gatsby is touching and very much NOT about shirts. Overall, Lurhmann has done a good job at making the emotional subtext visual and clear; at times, he’s as subtle as a sledge hammer, but he’s always clear, which I think will appeal to younger viewers.

DiCaprio's Gatsby is the most emotional
version of this character—ever.
Lurhmann’s cast deliver great performances all around: Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway creates a gentle sidekick to Leonardo DiCaprio’s frenetic, emotional Jay Gatsby. The scene where Nick invites Daisy to tea so Gatsby can see her again after (in this version) five years is memorable owing to DiCaprio’s heart-breaking vulnerability. Carey Mulligan is lovely as Daisy Buchanan. I would have directed Joel Edgerton to sneer a bit less as Tom Buchanan, but he has his great moments, too. I even liked the choice to use a contemporary sound track by Jay-Z to underscore the wild Gatsby parties. Jay-Z is 2013’s Gatsby: the brash guy from humble roots who’s made a pot of money and is at the center of the best parties in town; only Jay-Z got to marry his Daisy.

Nick (Tobey Maguire) and Jordan whoop
it up at one of Gatsby's wild parties.
I thought Lurhmann made an interesting use of Tom Buchanan’s college athlete past as Tom coaxes Nick to join in the revelry at his girlfriend Myrtle’s (Isla Fisher) apartment. Tom says that back in college, Nick always sat on the sidelines, but now it was time to get in the ballgame. And Nick does. His voiceover explains how he can be in the center of the action and still comment upon it as the outsider that he is. I could have done without the literalization of Nick’s narration of the story. In this version, we see Nick literally write The Great Gatsby as he dries out in a sanitarium, Fitzgerald’s text at times appearing on the screen as Nick “types” it. This adds nothing to the narrative for me, and just harps on the obsession with the book that the rest of the film gracefully pulls from, alludes to, honors, but refused to be tied down by. This Gatsby soars in its own lovely but manufactured world, consistently over-the-top in every scene. At 2 hours, 22 minutes, it was over too quickly.

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