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Weekend Movies: The Great Gatsby

  Gatsby-cheerswelcome
Leonardo DiCaprio welcomes you to the summer's most lavish party

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

"Gatsby. What Gatsby?"

Daisy asks with a rush of girlish 'it can't be!' alarm, her nerves far overpowering the tiny glimmer of hope you think you hear in her voice. Which is as sensible a reaction as anyone could have when hearing about the arrival of another Jay Gatsby in movie theaters. You don't mean THE GREAT GATSBY, do you?

2_gatsbyThe F Scott Fitzgerald classic is a tough book to crack for filmmakers, its power so tied to its gorgeous (slim) prose, its subtle and cynical evocations and condemnations of American wealth and unspoken caste system. Further complicating adaptations is that the story is subjectively narrated. It's all told by Nick Carraway and his is, despite blood ties to the wealthy, an outsider's point of view. It's an easy book to love but a difficult one to adapt. But Hollywood keeps trying once every thirty years or so. 

The story, if you are unfamiliar (though you won't want to admit that out loud) follows the attempts of the elusive mysterious extremely wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) to win back his lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who he abandoned many years earlier while penniless to seek his fortune. That sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but to the novel's credit Fitzgerald doesn't exactly take it at face value as a hero's journey; what's so heroic about vast sums of money used only for personal gain?

Gatsby buys up an estate in West Egg Long Island where he has a direct eyeline across the water to a similarly palatial home in East Egg where Daisy lives with her rich and shady husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) who is carrying on an affair with low class Myrtle (Isla Fisher) who lives above a gas station in "The Valley of Ashes" which director Baz Luhrmann stages like it's the 10th circle of hell. Gatsby throws decadent flashy parties hoping to lure Daisy in and seduces her cousin Nick (Tobey Maguire, our narrator) into helping him facilitate the reunion.

Which gets this party (aka movie) started AFTER THE JUMP...

Gatsby-partyglance

If you've seen Baz Luhrmann's 'Red Curtains Trilogy' (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!) you'll immediately recognize this as a Bazmark production. All the elements are there: zooming cameras, extremely opulent production design and costuming (by Baz's other half, his wife Catherine Martin), hyper editing which frustratingly doesn't fully let you enjoy said opulent production design, anachronistic celebrated song scores, stylized performances from famous actors, and repetitive looping screenplay structure (by Baz's other other half, his writing partner Craig Pearce). That Baz is both the right choice to helm a modern The Great Gatsby and all wrong for it is evidenced in the chasm between the big set pieces and the rest of the movie.

Gatbsy-floralmadness

The director's gift with stunning visuals sells Wealth as Intoxicating Fantasy superbly. The decadent party sequences with their contemporary music go a longer way in illustrating what was so roaring about "The Roaring 20s" better than most period pieces ever have. Baz has always had a flare for onscreen parties and understands how to drop you in among the revellers and leave you dizzy with excitement. Throughout the movie, Baz manages to make the parade of jaw-dropping wealth both funny -- as in Gatsby's attempt to pretty up Nick's place with truckloads of flowers "do you think it's too much?" -- and unnervingly dramatic, moments afterwards in that same scene and later in a key sequence when the five main characters drive into Manhattan for escape, pre air-conditioning. They remain trapped by wealth, holed up in a luxury hotel with servants chipping away at ice to cool them down. (Shouldn't they have just gone for a swim outside their front doors?)

GatsbyBut Baz' approach only works in fits and starts because he hasn't adjusted it to the contours of the material. There are so many shots and flourishes pulled directly from Moulin Rouge! that The Great Gatsby starts to feel like a gratuitously odd remake of that hallucinatory musical. You half expect Kylie Minogue to pop up as the green fairy in an early drug fueled hotel party.

It's quite strange to see this (subconscious?) near-remake after Baz had professed that he was moving on from the Red Curtain Trilogy with Australia (2008), implying that his much celebrated (and detested) style was not so much his only way of expressing himself but merely a choice meant for those particular films. When Gatsby really needs to investigate the characters, or needs to breathe to make you feel it, it falls apart. Baz just can't stop tricking up the sequences with visual wonder and fireworks (sometimes literally). The driving sequences strike me as the most obnoxious in this regard, with much noise and 3D propulsiveness amounting to absolutely nothing.

One of Gatsby's last visuals is a silhouette of Jay Gatsby in the green light of Daisy's shoreline. It's an arresting emotional image but Baz cuts away from it before it can achieve anything like the final iconic significance it should be aiming for. Daisy's entrance, another example, is teased by billowing white curtains, and just keeps on teasing. We get that she's a vision to Nick, and this luxurious world is bracing new air for him but it starts to feel like parody. Stop billowing, curtains! We totally see you.

Gatsby-tomjordan

But Daisy is a problem for any filmmaker and actress.

Novels have a much easier time than actors do at selling characters that are more narrated fantasy and ideal than fully realized human beings. Carey Mulligan, a gifted if already over-cast actress, aims high (I love the high affected voice, too fast to feel narcotized but too flat to be get her out of Stepford) but Daisy is still Daisy, more projection than character and how do you embody that? Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is great fun as intimidating sporty Jordan Baker but she isn't given much screentime.

GatsbyThe male principals mostly end at capable with significant obstacles to greatness: Maguire is non-committal as Nick Carraway, never playing the choices the screenplay has made about the character from its odd framing device and Baz & Craig have entirely ignored Nick's (arguable) gayness in the book which is a strange missed-opportunity given the movie's love of modernization; Edgerton is as watchable as ever as the racist bullying Buchanan, but he reads less uppercrust than DiCaprio which makes for some weird friction with the themes and characters as written; DiCaprio, who looks fantastic as Gatsby and who was such a revelation as a young actor, seems to have calcified into an actor with a weirdly limited range of facial expressions - we've literally seen them all before with him. Not that his dialogue helps. His constant refrain of "Old sport!" which he says HUNDREDS OF TIMES would be tough for any actor to pull off but since Leo gives it virtually no shift in feeling or variety or subtext from scene to scene (Watch Streep's "That's All" symphony from Prada to understand how this is done) it's entirely grating and sure to be mocked in a YouTube super-cut the second this is available on Blu-Ray. 

Though I've spilled hundreds of words detailing the problems with the new Gatsby, I would never trade Baz's Red Curtain Trilogy for the world. I just wish he'd let some of the epic Hollywood classicism he was aiming for in Australia (by most measures his least popular film) sink in to this new film to combat it's Moulin-Rougeyness. Like Gatsby and Carraway, Baz is too enamored by the wealthy leisure class to really see them for who they are. The fatal and most telling decision in this update is the reduction of the role of Myrtle (a game Isla Fisher) to tarty prop. She's nothing more than future roadkill in the scheme of things. In the end, Baz doesn't seem to care that the rich can get away with murder, but he most definitely cares about Gatsby's dreams of wrapping Daisy up in an ever greater cocoon of wealth.

 The Great Gatsby has been filmed once as a noir of sorts (1949), once as a creaky prestige piece (1974) and arrives to us now as a kinetic "Spectacular! Spectacular!" by way of Baz Luhrmann. But F Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel remains, for the movies, an elusive dream as tragically unfulfilled and in this case as shallow as Jay Gatsby's.

Gatsby-nickjordan
"I've just heard the most shocking thing"...they're totally remaking this again in 30 years!

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. There is nothing "arguable" about Nick Carraway's sexuality. He leaves the NYC party with Chester McKee. They go down in a "groaning" elevator with a prominently-noted phallic handle. And after a conspicuous ellipsis in the prose. they are revealed to be looking at McKee's intimate photography on his bed with him in his underpants.

    Posted by: Bollux | May 11, 2013 3:21:49 PM


  2. A terrific movie. The framing device is completely unnecessary. I disagree regarding the quieter scenes and Leo (as well as your assessment of Mulligan). The party scenes are completely overwrought - but fun to look at. They don't ruin the movie. It isn't until Gastby comes on scene though that the movie really takes off. DiCaprio is superb. Like Scarlett O'Hara and Vivien Leigh the movies has found its Jay Gatsby. The scene in Nick's cottage (bringing Gatsby and Daisy together) is fantastic. Sublime. As is the quiet scene at the Plaza before the accident. I agree steering clear of gay Nick was a HUGE misstep. In my eyes that was the only unpardonable sin. The book is the book. No one will ever be able to recreate that magic. It is only in the binding where it will remain forever pulsing like the green light.

    Posted by: David C. | May 11, 2013 3:37:08 PM


  3. Not even the least bit interested in seeing a "...Gatsby" on crack, no matter how pretty it is.

    Posted by: Kyle Michel Sullivan | May 11, 2013 3:39:11 PM


  4. I saw the first 15 minutes or so of Moulin Rouge. That was quite enough of that, thank you. I have no intention of wasting my time on anything remotely similar.

    Posted by: AdamK | May 11, 2013 4:02:11 PM


  5. I think Roger's review is on target, especially the second to last paragraph. From other Luhrmann films and from the previews, I wasn't expecting much more than a spectacle, so I wasn't disappointed. The framing device didn't work. The party scenes seemed flat, with less energy that lehrmann achieved in similar scenes in Moulin Rouge (though I admit wanting very much to go to some parties like Gatsby's). The best scene was in the Plaza hotelroom, because the actors finally got to do something interesting. I though Leonardo DiCaprio was quite good, though I agree the "Old Sport" thing got tiresome. Toby Maguire was the weak link in the cast, with his deer-caught-in-headlights looks not quite how I've always envisioned Nick.

    Posted by: MichaelJ | May 11, 2013 4:20:00 PM


  6. Regardless of the movies stylistic excesses and conscious anachronisms, I think there has never been nor ever will be an actor more suitable to play the part of Jay Gatz/Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio.

    Posted by: Chaz | May 11, 2013 4:42:57 PM


  7. Much of these comments stink of herdish "Love to hate Luhrmann" puerility. Any Kinsey 6 who didn't love the High Camp of "Moulin Rouge" [minus the low camp of the "Like a Virgin" number] should turn in his gay card. And Luhrmann's live staging of the opera "La Boheme" gave me one of the greatest entertainment experiences of any kind in my long life which includes everything from Babs at her peak to Leontyne.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | May 11, 2013 4:51:12 PM


  8. @Michael Bedwell: Did I miss the vote that elected you arbiter of taste for gay people? The notion that someone shouldn't identify as gay if they don't like "camp" is laughable...even more so when you say we should only love "High Camp".

    Posted by: alex | May 11, 2013 5:38:06 PM


  9. From what I've heard, the movie is a mess and does not make sense. It's also got a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Luhrmann is not particularly gay-friendly as a director, either.

    Posted by: Adam | May 11, 2013 5:43:49 PM


  10. "From what I've heard, the movie is a mess and does not make sense"

    That just about sums it up. And it does not even work as spectacle, because the opulent scenes are all of such short duration.

    What a waste.

    And while I have never cared for diCaprio as an actor (and will always think of him as a little boy), I love him as a human being, devoted as he has been to conserving the world's remaining wildlife.

    Posted by: Rick | May 11, 2013 6:05:22 PM


  11. I'm hearing mixed things....I'd like for more people who have actually scene the movie to post comments... turns out some people really love this movie...more people that I would expect considering all the terrible reviews.

    Posted by: steve | May 11, 2013 6:08:01 PM


  12. @steve I HAVE seen it, just for the record. I saw it yesterday, BEFORE the reviews came out....so my comments were based on what I saw.

    Posted by: Rick | May 11, 2013 6:19:33 PM


  13. This movie blew, not in the good way. I agree with Nathaniel's review, but I'd be harsher. There is ZERO effective acting in the film. No warmth or effort to understand the emotional complexity of the characters. It's just empty spectacle. MOULIN ROUGE sucked, too, but the story wasn't as interesting as THE GREAT GATSBY so the loss wasn't there. Bedwell's comment is typical of his I'm-right-and-if-you-disagree-you're-an-idiot comments that he's left here forever.

    Yes, you can be gay and not be a Baz fan.

    I did love ROMEO + JULIET, however, so was hoping maybe GATSBY would be for me. It wasn't.

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | May 11, 2013 6:22:06 PM


  14. Not a fan of the Redford version, Redford was too detached. I liked Baz's "Romeo and Juliet". "Moulin Rouge", was worried about the score but he did well with Romeo, looking forward to seeing it.

    Posted by: Rob West | May 11, 2013 6:43:40 PM


  15. Rex Reed gave the best critical review. He talked me out of seeing a movie I've been waiting for for months.

    Posted by: GB | May 11, 2013 7:31:31 PM


  16. Rex Reed? Really?????

    Posted by: David C. | May 11, 2013 8:21:58 PM


  17. I'm sorry, Bedwell, but my Gay Card remains firmly in my pocket.

    If you know nothing about Charles Walters then you lose yours

    Here's Chuck and Judy

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sepcDxEOYeI

    And here's "The National Anthem" as staged by Chuck

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUYa-mcGnOM

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | May 11, 2013 8:39:47 PM


  18. boys, boys...

    tranquila!

    Moulin Rouge was a fantastic, gay, spectacle. Call it camp, or not, it was meant for and is nearly universally loved by the gays. You're not exactly 'out of the club' if you didn't like it, but c'mon, girls.

    It IS absolutely an iconic modern-gay experience for most, whether you want to own it or not.

    I'm seeing Gatz in 3D tonight, mostly b/c it's Baz L... I'll let 'cha know.

    Posted by: PeteNsfo | May 11, 2013 8:47:36 PM


  19. I'm not ashamed to say I never read the book. I can tell from the title that it's another justification of the status quo posing as criticism. It's done by shifting attention from real selfishness and corruption to normalizing trivia like love and fabulous parties. It's an old formula that still works on the clueless masses.

    Posted by: Wilberforce | May 11, 2013 8:49:08 PM


  20. @ Wilberforce: If you haven't read the book, then you really can't make such a criticism.

    At all.

    Posted by: Rich F. | May 11, 2013 11:00:26 PM


  21. I was more excited about this Gatsby movie before learning the details. What's more, if they've turned another character straight to "sanitize" it for straight audiences, that honestly makes me want to puke. I refuse to see it.

    @bedwell: ugh, Moulon rouge? Are you kidding me? I literally fell asleep during that movie . I'm also really tired of being expected to like something based on my sexual orientation.

    Posted by: Just_a_guy | May 12, 2013 12:28:29 AM


  22. Ditto what Rich F. wrote about Wilberforce's comment, which is pretty ignorant.

    @GB LOL about your comment on Rex Reed's review.

    Posted by: MichaelJ | May 12, 2013 1:43:34 AM


  23. Yes, David! Let's hear it for Chuck Walters!

    Posted by: JeffNYC | May 12, 2013 10:25:40 AM


  24. "Rex Reed? Really?????

    Posted by: David C. | May 11, 2013 8:21:58 PM"

    What's the matter with Rex Reed? As a little tyke of 11-12 in the 70s I used to adore staying up late for Johnny Carson if Rex Reed was scheduled. He wasn't afraid of the Hollywood publicity machine and said things that everyone at home agreed with which is why Carson always had him on. ("The Exorcist" was a phenomenon and should have been named Best Picture over the milquetoast "The Sting"but the Academy is full of old farts)


    Posted by: MIke | May 12, 2013 11:34:55 AM


  25. @Just_a_guy
    'They've turned another character straight to "sanitize" it for straight audiences, that honestly makes me want to puke.'

    Couldn't agree more.
    This is the movie industry formula for whitewashing homosexuality out of everyday existence that fortifies the 'I know it's there but I just don't want to have to deal with it' attitude.

    If we ask that a gay character is presented as written in film then we're 'flaunting' our sexuality.

    Whitewashing of gays aside, I just don't feel much like celebrating a 'gilded class' in America right now.

    Posted by: JONES | May 12, 2013 2:12:14 PM


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