Movie: The Great Gatsby; Director: Baz Luhrmann; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 4 out of 5 stars.
If the point of going to the movies is to escape for a while in a world very much not your own, to experience highs and lows that you're not likely to find in your own day to day existence, then Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" is one remarkable feat of entertainment. Though not without significant flaws, most of which are made up in overbearing stylistic gimmicks, the mood captures what it set out to capture: the jazz age in all its glamour, glitz - and even, depending on your view - moral decay.
Luhrmann set his tone early in his career with 1996's "Romeo + Juliet," and continued it in 2001's "Moulin Rouge," and again with 2008's "Australia." The style turns remarkable, dramatic stories into films for what was once called the "MTV audience" but now seems to permeate every form of video entertainment. The editing is quick, the colors are saturated, and something modern clashes with something old.
In "Romeo + Juliet," Luhrmann maintained Shakespeare's language while setting the characters in a modern world.
In "The Great Gatsby," though, rapper Jay Z's influence as executive producer is broadly felt.
Although the story of unrequited love and endless hope for our dreams for life to become destiny is set in 1920s New York, the music largely is not. Instead it mixes the tone of big band swing, appropriate for the time, with modern urban music. This has to be the worst part of the film and is almost offensive in its suggestion - which has happened before - that hip-hop is an extension and evolution of jazz. While improvisation persists in the modern form, it persists as well for all types of music by definition. I was somewhat disgusted by the whole notion, and the film would be much better off had it stayed more true, musically, to the era it preserved almost perfectly in a romantic sense throughout the rest of the film.
It's not only the era the film stays faithful to, though. "The Great Gatsby" is, of course, one of the most famous and beloved novels ever written and is almost everyone's entrance to understanding what the "Roaring '20s" were, and has set the stage for the way we think about it. In fact, the reputation of the book is what made this film so controversial for those who loved F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic.
Luhrmann, who co-wrote the film with Craig Pearce, may have been a bit too reverent toward that reputation.
The film begins and ends with a construct not presented in the novel: The narrator, Nick Carraway (played by Tobey MacGuire, who for the first time ever I didn't find to be overly annoying in a man-child way), is in a sanitarium a few years following the story we are about to be told. You see, he begins, in that time "we all drank too much ... and none of us contributed anything new."
The depressed, anxious alcoholic has given up and realizes he is disgusted with the world and everyone he knew in it except for one man, Jay Gatsby, who he saw as the single most hopeful man he had ever met. This bookending construct at the sanitarium excuses the film to make one of its many inexcusable and distracting stylistic gimmicks. The psychiatrist suggests that Carraway write down the tale in a journal because Carraway had always wanted to be a writer, he said, but gave it up to try to sell bonds. With the journal writing, you see, the filmmakers are then able to project
Fitzgerald's beautiful prose onto the film itself.
Strike one. Remove the text on the screen.
Cue one of 3 billion gorgeous tracking shots, this time away from a tired, miserable Carraway, through an ice-frosted window suggesting the winter of his life and then into lush West Egg, a fictional Long Island town for the new wealthy, across the lake from West Egg for the old wealthy.
For $80 a month, Carraway lives in a forgotten caretaker's home (which is ridiculously quaint) nestled amongst the grandiose mansions. And there is no mansion larger than the one right next door, the one owned - Carraway will find out - by one Jay Gatsby, the toast of New York City and the most seductively mysterious man one could ever encounter.
The mystery persists throughout the story, and each tale of the great Gatsby, whose own employees have never met him, gets more exciting than the rest. Some say he was a German spy "during the war," some say he's the second of cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, some say he kills people for free and for fun.
Regardless of who he is, Gatsby has taken a strong interest in his poor next door neighbor.
Carraway is, of course, the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, wife of Tom Buchanan, the great Yale polo star, former most eligible bachelor in America, and noted white supremacist (you can't discuss the early 20th century without at least mentioning that little history). Daisy also is the one who stole the heart of Jay Gatsby five years prior. At that time, Gatsby was a penniless officer and war hero who by his own account ran two machine gun battalions into battle and, seemingly, won the war for the allies single handedly.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby perfectly.
And that took a lot out of me to say. I have always found Leo to be "serviceable" at worst and "satisfactory" at best in his acting. But the man truly smacked me in the face with joy the moment we get to meet Gatsby at one of his massive parties, where everyone in New York, "from every walk of life," just shows up to drink his booze and take in, every single week, what would be the grandest party any of us could ever imagine. He raises his glass, in glorious slow motion, and tips it, with a twinkle in his eye as fireworks go off in the distance and strains of Gershwin are elevated to near ludicrous levels. It's the shot of Leo's career, I must say, and embodies every ounce of excess that Fitzgerald threw into the character.
If not for "the role of DiCaprio's career" alone, the sheer excess of the setting of his mansion, or the New York City that comes alive in the night with easy sex and random saxophone players, and every element of glitz on nearly every frame will entertain you.
That all depends, of course, on where you stand on the issue.
My reading of the novel felt that the love Gatsby feels for Daisy is the story of that great age. Everything must be perfect and huge and glittery and loud and desperate, on the off chance that something can and will happen that will make all of it worthwhile and purposeful. Those who know the story know how it goes and those who don't will not be swindled by this telling.
What seems strange is that this almost feels like Luhrmann's most restrained film. While the parties and the alcohol run free and ooze of the screen (particularly to those who pay extra for the 3D), he gives room for his actors to embody all that they need to.
Particular applause must be given to the director for finally giving the breathtaking Carey Mulligan her due. The English actress has amazed me for years now, but always in small roles where her delicacy is on display. Here she is given room to blossom into the classic movie star everyone who has been watching knows she can be. She's not of this era. There's the '20s, shallow, flapper attitude to her, but underneath that a sweetness remains. Her dimples are displayed in abandon, her smile quietly disarming and her eyes glistening, always. Here is a woman who was born for the soft focus and all the pomp that her character is due.
Joel Edgerton, too, is in fine form as Tom Buchanan.
He knows when to get loud, and he knows when to recede and generously share the screen with everyone else. The reason to notice the generosity, though, is the strength of the character. The man was "born different," born wealthy and expected to be larger than life. A polo star in his youth, he now screams money and upbringing. It's the upbringing that separates him from the world and keeps the audience on edge with the outright arrogance, and keeps the audience ashamed that they recognize his station in life even more than he projects it.
While style sometimes overruns substance, that's expected in the facade Gatsby has projected to the world, while deep down he's a vessel destined for only one fate. Luhrmann has given the world a movie that will allow everyone to appreciate, again or for the first time, a story and characters that are simply too large for anything smaller.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)