Film review: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
Village Roadshow Pictures, Bazmark Productions, A&E Television, Red Wagon Entertainment

STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton, Callan McAuliffe, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki
WRITTEN BY Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, based on some book nobody’s ever heard of by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Great Gatsby
PRODUCED BY Baz Luhrmann, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Martin, Catherine Knapman
DIRECTED BY Baz Luhrmann

SHOT BY Simon Duggan
EDITED BY Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond
MUSIC BY Craig Armstrong
DISTRIBUTED BY Warner Bros. Pictures

Screened 2013-05-07

Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant adaptation of The Great Gatsby is a fairy tale about money. Much of it feels like an amusement park ride, an ostentatious Broadway musical, a coloring book, a histrionic orgasm – and like Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit film, represents another literary adaptation no thinking man could conceive costing so much. I have no particular allegiance to Fitzgerald’s tale of hollow opportunism, and nothing against it (the auteur knew how to turn a phrase), and unlike half of the general readers who graduated from American high schools, I do not list the book in my top ten ever. Prior to this screening I was somewhat shocked to see a theater packed with flappers and scumbags, until I realized that American media junkies live for the delectation of nostalgia and, laterally, dressup. I have sympathy all over the place for similar vices, but I wish these fans could fixate on less shallow Golden Ages.

Leonard DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby (as we all know quite well thanks to the film’s relentlessly ubiquitous marketing campaign) and, to no great surprise, provides a characteristically consummate performance, though I am beginning to wonder what DiCaprio wants; with such star power at his disposal, it’s a let-down to see him pandering to the kiddy cash machines. The story is narrated in flashback by the “morbidly alcoholic” (I did like that touch) Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, clearly typecast as the doey-eyed innocent after his turn in Raimi’s own paint-by-the-numbers, tween-aimed spectaculars. Is it any coincidence that the faces of Leo and Tobey (real life old sports) are inherently youthful, cast in a film reliant on the ambitious intoxications of youth? I find Maguire so much more interesting when I see him playing a complete bastard, like he did in the never, ever mentioned (for good reason) Good German, or as that moral eel James Leer in everybody’s favorite (for good reason), Wonder Boys. I always expected Carraway’s role to be quite underplayed in this story – maybe it’s the character’s modest decency which makes him slip into the cracks between words – but Maguire receives plenty of screen time, and fulfills his role adequately enough. But it isn’t like any acting awards will be handed out.

It’s a film that allows no room for observation, subtlety, intuition, it takes your hand and whisks you along like it’s a Supermarket Sweep. The first 45 minutes of the film are an exhausting, endless cacophony of revelry and edits which last no longer than one second apiece. Jay-Z’s soundtrack is comprised of modern pop tunes that will be obsolete in one year, throbbing with subwoofed bass and schizophrenic digital editing, designed to intoxicate the audience like Mr. Carraway is intoxicated (though nobody seems to care that Carraway’s intoxication is wholly superficial in nature) – but hey, he’s making big fucking dollars, so who’s counting? After the initial orgiastic, deafening setup the film becomes vaguely watchable, specifically in its two (count them: two) extended scenes which could involve the audience: Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy on a rainy day in Carraway’s fantasy cottage located next door to New York’s Neuschwanstein (Gatsby’s manor), and the high rise hotel hell confrontation between Gatsby and Mr. Daisy. At times the film feels so contrived, melodramatic and hokey that it plays like a parody of itself, a version of a soulless blockbuster you’d see a sinister Simpsons character creating, and never moreso than in Gatsby’s death scene. Strangely enough, that tonal mindless hoo-hah basically ebbs and peters out as the film progresses, and by the end scenes play out in a conventional, linear manner. Oh, and I bet nobody notices this: in the scene with Meyer Wolfsheim, his eyes are dilated.

Is it worthless? Perhaps not. It could’ve been worse, there is something there, and I could’ve said a nice thing or two. But the impulse has died in me to give any credit to something so commercial and so hollow, no matter how hard anybody worked on it. This is not what we need right now. This is the end of Rome. And they’re peddling it to your children.

written by David Ashley


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