Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby [2013]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Richard Roeper (3 1/2 Stars)  Michael Phillips (2 1/2 Stars) AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoSunTimes (R.Roeper) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AV Club (B. Keninsberg) review

The very first thing I must say about The Great Gatsby [2013] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Baz Luhrman along with Craig Pearce based, of course, on the celebrated novel [Amzn] by F. Scott Fitzgerald [IMDb]) is that if the Academy does not give Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar for his performance in the film's lead/title role as Jay Gatsby [IMDb] then they should line-up all the members of the Academy, every last one of them, and just shoot them all.

The scene in which Gatsby [IMDb] (played by DiCaprio) finally meets after many years the love around whom he had built his whole life, the charming if flighty upper-class Daisy Buchanan [IMDb] (played again perfectly here by Carey Mulligan) has got to be one of the most heartbreakingly insightful moments in film that I've ever seen.  For in that scene, and really throughout the film, DiCaprio (talented, capable, and yes as good-looking as he is) captured the talent, capability, "dashing-ness" and yet fundamental INSECURITY of Jay Gatsby DEAD ON:

For here was a former "nobody," the former Jay Gatz, who literally grew-up "dirt poor" as a "farm boy" somewhere Minnesota/Dakota-way ... who had "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps" to absolutely stratospheric heights becoming the RICH, CULTURED, POPULAR, indeed the GREAT Gatsby and NOW, AT THIS MOMENT he was putting it ALL ON THE LINE ... for a young woman who he had met (and fell in love with) FIVE YEARS PAST, who was then "way, way out of his league" ... and yet NOW, perhaps, MAYBE, FINALLY ... WHAT A SCENE !!! ;-) ;-)  

And I do believe that honestly NOBODY could play THAT SCENE as well as DiCaprio did.  Robert Redford tried in Francis Ford Copolla's version of The Great Gatsby [1974].  But while Redford certainly has had a storied career (one thinks of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], The Sting [1973], All the President's Men [1976] and then all that he's done off-screen for cinema, especially for independent cinema, with his establishment of the Sundance Institute/annual Sundance Film Festival) and while Redford seemed absolutely destined to play THE NATURAL [1984], playing Jay Gatsby really wasn't Redford's role/destiny to play in the way that it was DiCaprio's.  Think of DiCaprio's roles in Romeo + Juliet [1996], The Titanic [1997], even The Aviator [2004], Inception [2010] and J. Edgar [2011].  DiCaprio has proven capable of playing not merely a "pretty (or blessed) boy" but a tragically flawed even doomed hero.  And my friends GATSBY is the tragic/doomed hero in spades.

But then, let's get to the movie ...   As in the novel, the story is told through the perspective of Nick Carraway [IMDb] (again excellently cast and played by Tobey Maguire).  We're informed that at the time at which the story that he's recalling was taking place (in the early 1920s), he had been a recent arrival to New York, having taken-on a Wall Street job as a bond salesman.  (And yet he harbored some lingering ambitions of one day writing a novel...).

At the beginning of the story it was summer and as one working on Wall Street in the early 1920s, he rented a small cottage for the weekends along the shore somewhere midway up Long Island in a hamlet called West Egg.  Aside from the smallness of his cottage, West Egg suited him fine as it was largely inhabited by people like him, that is, others who had recently acquired the means to rent a place to escape the summer heat of New York if only for a short vacation or on weekends.  There was also an East Egg, across the bay from West Egg, that was more established and, more to the point, where the "old money" summered.

Nick had a somewhat distant relation (a second cousin once removed) his same age named Daisy Buchanan [IMDb] (played in the current movie by Carey Mulligan and in Copolla's 1974 version by Mia Farrow).  Both were originally from Kentucky though Daisy was from a wealthier side of the family.  Nick had stayed on in New York after having returned from Europe following World War I.  Daisy came to New York after marrying Tom Buchanan [IMDb] (played in the current film by Joel Edgerton) a young mustached and moneyed man from a long established/wealthy family (hence the estate on the shore in East Egg...).  Tom's also something of a filanderer carrying on an affair with a woman named Myrtle Wilson [IMDb] (played by Isla Fisher) married to an auto-mechanic and lives, quite conveniently, in a small dirty roadside stop about midway between New York City and playgrounds of East and West Egg where those with better means would spend their weekends during the summer.  Tom actually introduces Nick to Myrtle and a friend of hers early-on in the story, apparently utterly unconcerned that Nick's actually a relation, distant though it may be, to his wife ...

Near the beginning of the tale, Nick pays a visit to his wealthier relation Daisy in East Egg.  During his time there, conversation turns to Nick's somewhat mysterious but clearly very wealthy neighbor named Gatsby.  Now West Egg was where the "up and comers" lived.  The Old Wealth summered in East Egg.  Yet, Gatsby's apparently recently-made wealth (his estate seemed at least as big as that of the Buchanans, the two estates facing each other if separated by the now famous bay) and his quite extravagant parties had become the talk of the whole region (even Myrtle and her friend mentioned above knew of him and his parties, as did certainly the folks of East Egg...).  So Nick was asked about this Gatsby, who was he?  Nick answered truthfully that he didn't know except that he was actually a neighbor of his.  So the conversation continued the way that conversations often go in the absence of facts ... speculating on how he could have amassed all his apparently new-found money: "I heard that he had been a German spy." "No I heard he's a rum runner..."

Some days later, back in his small cottage in West Egg but next to the very large estate of Gatsby's, Nick finds himself receiving an invitation to Gatsby's next party.  When he arrives, he finds that Gatsby's home/estate is filled with all kinds of partiers, most of whom don't have the faintest idea of who Gatsby actually was, just that "there's a party going on at his place" and so there they were.  In the midst of this (Prohibition Era) booze flowing, jazz blasting, Charleston swinging party, Nick is surprised that the mysterious Gatsby actually searches him out and makes his acquaintance to him.

Now why would The Great Gatsby do that, be so interested in him, little ole Nick, a meager bond salesman from New York, with the smallest cottage in both the Eggs?

This is where the story really begins and when we find out that Gatsby, whoever he may be, seems to have met Daisy, Nick's distant cousin, some five years back.  His encounter with her back then, while they both still lived in the Midwest (but her station being much, much higher than his ...) had motivated him to create the world that he's since amassed around him since (the wealth, the erudition, the many, many medals of valor that he received during the Great War that he fought valiantly in afterwards) so that he could become worthy of her interest in him.  Wonderful, 'cept it's been five years (!!) AND NOW SHE'S MARRIED (yes, to a dirt bag, but to a wealthy old moneyed/established family dirt bag, and, yes, honestly, married nonetheless).
The rest of this terribly sad story ensues ... and it remains my opinion that honestly no one in Hollywood today could play Gatsby's role BETTER than Leonardo DiCaprio.  As the song goes: "Nobody [could do] it better..."

Okay, now some technical thoughts about the current film, directed and screenplay cowritten by Baz Luhrman along with Craig Pearce:

The two previously collaborated on two very visually extravagant films: Romeo + Juliet [1996] (which actually co-starred a younger Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role of Romeo) and Moulon Rouge! [2001].  Hence, it doesn't surprise me that the two would choose to be visually extravagant with this film as well especially since this would "move the ball forward"/"do something new" with regards to Fitzgerald's story from where Francis Ford Copolla had left it in 1974.  One could say that Copolla's 1974 version was "quite good" if also "kinda boring" perhaps because even in the 1970s it probably felt "kinda dated."  In any case, Copolla's version didn't seem to cut the way Fitzgerald's original novel did.  So enter Luhrman/Pearce who did choose to go "full in" visually.  And in our time, "full in" means 3D.

Now those who read my blog regularly know that I generally despise 3D, considering it to be largely a ticket-price-gauging gimmick and hence generally avoid 3D versions of films.  However, knowing both Fitzgerald's story and the reputation of the two film-makers making this movie, I made the exception here because it was clear to me that the two made this film with the definite intention that it be viewed that way.  And having seen the product now, I would DEFINITELY recommend to viewers that they spend the extra $4-5 to see the film as it was intended by Luhrman/Pearce in 3D.

Interestingly enough, I found that the film-makers' use of the 3D-effect DID NOT make the film appear "more realistic."  Indeed particularly near the beginning of the film, I found that the 3D effect made it seem as though the story was playing-out on/in a series of very, very elaborate "toy sets" or "doll houses."

However, I soon came to LIKE the effect because the "hyper-reality" of the sets, of the parties, etc served to remind me that what I was experiencing was the presentation of a very precisely structured yet ELEGANT / EVOCATIVE STORY.   A novel is, after all, a work of fiction, that is not real or un-realFitzgerald's novel was also always revered for both its crispness and its evocative elegance.  I would argue that the "hyper-reality" of some of the scenes in this film actually help express the crispness and even the elegance of Fitzgerald's original work.  The use of "hyper-reality" or otherwise stylization can serve as visual "shorthand" evoking more than just the image/action at hand.

Another stylistic means by which the current film-makers paid homage to Fitzgerald's original literary work was to use the device of having Nick, the story's narrator, recall the story "of the Great Gatsby" as he's trying to set it down on paper.  Hence we periodically see Nick writing, with letters and words  materializing "out of thin air" before us (above him, beside him, below him) coalescing then together into some of the more memorable phrases and sentences of what became Fitzgerald's work.   The effect -- in 3D -- is at times truly magical.

Finally, I do realize that there will be those who will object to the "hyper-visual" style of this film.  To them, honestly, I'd say: "Don't go, content yourselves with the novel."  However, cinema is a VISUAL medium and readers of my blog will know that I consistently favor and reward films that seek to express themselves well  VISUALLY indeed films that push the boundaries of what's possible in doing so.  Otherwise, I honestly don't see the point of making a movie.  One could (like Fitzgerald did) write a book, or perhaps make an audio recording.  But if one wants to make a FILM then I do believe it's important to make it VISUALLY INTERESTING.

Hence I can only applaud this film and I would encourage detractors of the current version to compare it to Copolla's 1974 version (available on Amazon Instant Video).  Copolla's was again quite good (and perhaps even lavish for its time) but IMHO the current film is a step forward and hence, in our time, better.

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  1. I'm with you on this one. DiCaprio makes this movie work and it was terrific to look at. I saw several low scores on the Lamb and I suspect they are the usual haters of Baz Luhrman's style. If anything, I would consider going up on my rating because of the visual elegance. That first half hour or so of parties and such was a little too frantic, but once Gatsby shows up, the movie takes off on the right track.

  2. Thanks Richard for your comment/agreement. I honestly don't understand the hate that many critics have had for Baz Luhrman's style. Credit him for the obvious enthusiasm he has for his films. Have any of his critics ever seen a single opera? Classic need not mean "Downton Abbey" / "Masterpiece Theater" BORING.

    Fitzgerald was writing about the JAZZ AGE and Gatsby WAS TRYING to get attention NOT BY BEING BORING ("I say chap, I hear there's this Gatsby fellow throwing some very mediocre parties across the bay every Saturday this summer. I say we hop into the Bentley one evening and see this fellow out ...") The whole point was that Gatsby was being EXTRAVAGANT to get attention (hoping that Daisy would notice him) and that HIS EXTRAVAGANCE was somewhat scandalous (though enjoyable) to the "old rich." So I think Luhrman had a better sense of the story than his critics who seem to equate the classics with a ritalin based Victorian sensibility.