Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Amitabh Bachchan, Jack Thompson, Adelaide Clemens
Running Time: 142 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The pressure and expectations that accompany adapting a classic novel for the big screen can be overwhelming. Unless, of course, it was already poorly adapted. Such is the case with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which already spawned a 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow lifeless enough to double as an insomnia cure. One thing you can't call Baz Luhrmann's 2013 take is "lifeless," but considering he's the director of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, we could have easily guessed that going in. My reasoning for including it in the runners-up section of the year's most anticipated films had less to do with the fact that I suspected it would be any good (though the potential was there) and more to do with it's potential as an entertaining train wreck with some memorable performances. He specializes in those, each resulting in varying degrees of creative success.

The big surprise is that this is far from a train wreck. It isn't crazy. It's a faithful, respectful re-telling of the original story that fulfills most of the expectations associated with our idea of the quintessential adaptation. In fact, the craziest thing about it is the title character, or rather the mesmerizing, off-kilter, over-the-top performance given by the actor playing him. And yet it feels right in this context. Not only does the movie look tremendous, but the story is absorbing and heartbreaking, working in tandem with the visuals to create a surprisingly rich and rewarding movie experience. Audiences loved it while critics were more mixed, but I'm siding with the former. There's an uncertain first hour, and a bit too much narration for my taste, but the payoff is sensational. Simply put, it's a great film that deserves a spot in the upper echelon of recent cinematic literary adaptations.

In just about the only change from the novel, Yale University grad, World War I vet and failed writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) pens his story in a sanatorium where he's being treated for alcoholism. It was the summer of 1922 when he moved from the Mid West to New York to take a job selling bonds and taking up residence in West Egg, Long Island. His neighbor is the elusive, enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire who throws lavish parties at his extravagant mansion. Confused by his recent invitation to one and taken aback by Gatsby's sudden interest in him, it soon becomes clear to Nick that his true interest is really in his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), with whom he had a love affair five years prior. He's only thrown these parties with the hope she'd one day show up. Nick reconnects them, with the only problem being that she's married to philandering, brutish polo champion Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He's determined to unravel the mystery of Gatsby before it's too late and he loses his wife for good.

The biggest fear I had approaching this was that Luhrmann would use Fitzgerald's novel as a launching pad for a feature length music video or a rough outline for contemporizing it without having to face the backlash of actually contemporizing it. I fully expected this would primarily be a visual feast, with characters served up as appetizers to sell soundtracks. As it turns out, neither comes to pass. While the parties are a crazy visual spectacle employing elaborate use of CGI, over-the-top sets, quick cuts, and contemporary music, it's not a distraction and dovetails surprisingly well with the time period and story. If anything, it's more restrained than we were led to believe from the trailers, and while Jay-Z provides the score and Lana Del Ray an original song, nothing necessarily calls attention to that or takes us out of the period setting. Those concerns are only further squashed when we meet Gatsby, the buildup of which is given the satisfying mystery it deserves, proving that the story does really come first here. The slow, steady introduction of the mysterious Gatsby amongst rumors he's a spy and other far out rumors regarding his past, is the film's ace in the hole. And it's a credit to the script and DiCaprio's charismatic performance that those mysteries never feel fully disclosed even when they eventually are.

The film doesn't really begin until Gatby shows up and he knows how to make an entrance. DiCaprio just owns this from his very first scene, using the character's playboy persona to mask his massive insecurity. The brilliance in his portrayal comes when he subtly gives signs that he may not necessarily be in love with Daisy as much as he's obsessed with holding on to her and the past. That he's been throwing these lavish parties for years with only the hope she'll eventually show is almost proof enough. And when Gatsby eventually starts to crack, we still side with him because he remains so likable and relatable despite the extravagant lifestyle he leads. DiCaprio makes it easy for us to understand how, given his background and personality, the character would behave like this.

At first, Gatsby's using Nick to get to Daisy but the irony ends up being that the bond that forms between the two men might be the only real connection that's forged in the story. Nick's using him too, realizing his cousin is his free pass into a privileged world he may not have otherwise had access to. But because both are so honest and upfront about their intentions a true friendship is eventually formed and it's only toward the end, when all the leaches sucking off Gatsby's wealth have abandoned him, that we realize it's likely Nick was the only friend he's ever had.

Maguire makes for the perfect Nick Carraway since the actor's biggest selling qualities have always been his naivete and wide-eyed amazement at what's happening around him. He's the ideal vessel for the audience in that he's the rare reliable narrator who actually does seem reliable. We believe every word he's saying, even if one of the script's few flaws is that he's probably given too many of them, as the characters' actions are more than suitable in carrying the load. It had to help that DiCaprio and Maguire are in reality very good friends, and it's a credit to them that viewers would probably be able to guess that watching them interact on screen together.

Those expecting Carey Mulligan to make for an unforgettable Daisy should probably consider that the character has always been kind of a cipher or blank slate for Gatsby to project all of his obsessions onto. Even in the book that seemed to be her very specific function so there's really only so much an actress can do with that and Mulligan delivers exactly what's asked of her, but little more. Daisy isn't exactly a woman of agency but it's easy to imagine other rumored candidates for the role like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson having a much rougher time with it than Mulligan, who possesses a certain type of innocence onscreen that they rarely convey.

Stealing most scenes is newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who as golf pro and potential Nick love interest, Jordan Baker, nails the period look, manner and way of speaking to the extent that she not only draws attention to herself, but shines the spotlight on her castmates as well. Joel Edgerton gains a surprising amount of empathy for the brutish Tom Buchanan, as his third act verbal showdown with DiCaprio ends up being one of the film's strongest sequences. Rounding out the cast is Isla Fisher as Tom's mistress Myrtle and Jason Clarke as husband George, whose residence in the industrial "valley of ashes," is sensationally visualized by Luhrmann, even incorporating the novel's iconic paperback cover within the setting in an inventive touch.

We shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth as this is as good an adaptation of the source material as we're going to get, or was even possible. It's almost mind boggling that the reaction has been so divisive when Luhrmann stayed so relatively true to the original text. If anything, he could have taken more creative liberties since this is almost restrained for him. But this was the right approach. How he brings it home at the end with a surprisingly emotional wallop should be proof enough that there's a lot more going on here than the impressive production and costume design and cinematography, which will still likely figure in huge during awards time. This was hard to do but Luhrmann nailed it, proving that sometimes it isn't always best to leave well enough alone. By putting a new polish on a familiar story he's succeeded in making it more accessible, while not abandoning any of the original elements that made it work.  

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