Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann                              Writer: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Film Score: Craig Armstrong                       Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton

I have to say I had very low expectations going into this film. I had absolutely hated Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge and so I completely expected another debacle. It turns out it wasn’t that bad, but it definitely did not live up to what The Great Gatsby could have been in more deft hands. This is the classic story by F. Scott Fitzgerald of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire living on Long Island who attempts to get back together with his former love, Daisy. Set in the 1920s, it’s a time of excess in the country, a period of extreme confidence in being a world power and winning World War I, and as a result a time of overconfidence that ended in destruction. Gatsby embodies those attributes perfectly. Unfortunately, Luhrmann does everything he can to subvert that context and take us out of the time period altogether.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, and it feels as if he was directed rather poorly. He plays the title character as nervous, lacking confidence, and very artificial in terms of his behavior. Now this could, I suppose, be one of the interpretations of the character where his actions on screen serve to expose the truth about him in a not-so-subtle way. But it doesn’t work. The basic artificiality of the character is not what should drive the story, especially in the fist half of the film. He needs to be supremely confident and comfortable in his façade and allow the audience to discover his secret along with Nick. It’s just too forced. Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick is also problematic. He’s a little too wide-eyed and innocent. As he says in the first line of the film, he withholds judgment of people, but that doesn’t mean he's gullible. He’s certainly not in Fitzgerald’s novel. Carey Mulligan is good as Daisy, but in this film it comes off as a rather generic role, something a lot of good actresses could have handled with ease.

The biggest problem I had with the film, however, was the way Luhrmann completely undercut the setting. First there was the use of modern rap and pop songs in the soundtrack. Whatever the purpose, and I can’t think of one, it became an anachronism that the film never escaped from. In that context, “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin becomes little more than a throwaway rather than being the centerpiece of what could have been, say, a Gershwin based score. It’s such a shame because there are a myriad ways that period music could have been used in a modern way and really enhanced the picture. The other thing that destroyed the setting was the overuse of CGI. Almost all of the exteriors, including New York City, were done with computer animation and it destroys whatever sense of the time period that had been attempted. Again, there were actual period inserts early on in the film that, if used as a leitmotif, could have been brilliant but were never used after that.

In the end, the use of technology overwhelms the story, and in the viewer's mind the visual effects replace the emotion that should be the focus of the film. The modern music also undercuts what should be an emphasis on the period, and the acting is misdirected. It’s not a horrible film, but it’s not a good film either. It was a nice attempt at updating a classic, but Luhrmann was probably not the director to do it. His vision is style over substance and that’s definitely not what’s needed when tackling a period piece. The second half of the film is decidedly better than the first, but half a film is not really worth it. Ultimately The Great Gatsby is a disappointment, though one that was expected, and while it’s worth a look it’s not something that I’ll be adding to my collection.

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