Friday, May 31, 2013

The Cinema File #190: “The Great Gatsby” Review

You know, it's strange. Even though I've never liked a Baz Luhrmann film, and in fact vehemently disliked many of them including this one, I can't honestly say that he's a bad director. In fact I might even call the man a genius just based on his mastery of the visual medium. That being said, much like Charles Oppenheimer, great genius can often be misapplied leading to horrific results. Only the long arc of history will be able to judge whether the career of Baz Luhrmann in its totality will prove worse than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but after watching The Great Gatsby, I'm placing my bets in the affirmative.

Okay, to be honest, its been a long time since I've read F. Scott Fitsgerald's The Great Gatsby. Not since college actually, and the only thing I really remembered going into this was a lot of talk of symbolism about green lights, west eggs, and giant billboards. I can't say I really remember what all of it meant or represented or said about the human condition, but then I'm pretty sure Baz Luhrmann didn't give a shit about any of that when he made this movie anyway, so it didn't hamper my ability to understand it at all.

For one thing, I'm pretty sure the book's depiction of roaring 20's high society hedonism was meant to be a critique of the excesses of the age, and not a bald glorification of them. In a time when the income inequality and resultant decadence of the top 1% rivals the wildest Gatsby party, I wonder if indulging in the glitz and glamour of wealth might be exactly the wrong message we need right now in our cinema. Yes, it all comes crashing down in the end as the narrative its based on demands, or at least a crash of some sort puts a damper on the festivities, but I distinctly remember a very pronounced anti-upper crust sentiment infusing the ending of the novel that feels undercut here by Luhrmann's penchant for extravagance for its own sake.

When I first heard that Luhrmann as adapting Gatsby, remaking the (I suppose) classic Redford film, I couldn't fathom what he found worthwhile in a story I always considered rather dry and bland. Upon watching the film, I am forced to wonder if he stopped reading at the party scenes, signed the contract, and then banged the rest of it out with the Cliff's Notes. Watching these familiar characters go through the motions of the plot without adhering to any of the meaning I remembered was so shallow that I actually began to feel a sense of scholarly betrayal even though I never really liked this book to begin with, and couldn't care less about the changes.

Chief among those changes (well, not counting the completely stupid and unnecessary framing device of Nick Carraway in an insane asylum and then later becoming F. Scott Fitsgerald) is the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy. Gone is the intentionally hollow mission of a man seeking to attain ownership of the one thing he can't have (and thus the one thing he wants), replaced by an epic love story ending in tragedy. Well, the original ended that way too, but now its not so much a story of how ambition in a rigged system of elites dehumanizes, and more of a personal tale of love, lost, found, and lost again. You might argue that this is an improvement on the novel from a dramatic standpoint, and it might be if at any point the movie gave you a reason to engage emotionally with any of these characters.

Part of this is just my own bias against Leonardo DiCaprio, who as I believe I mentioned in my Django Unchained review, is pretty much always terrible, and no less here. Every time I see him in a role, in particular the kind of period piece like this he's now so well known for, I just imagine a little kid in his father's clothes play acting in the backyard. Mr. T disappears into a role better than this guy, and that he trots out some weird amalgam of J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes to cobble together his take on Gatsby makes it all the more grating. Seriously, somebody needs to tell whoever wrote this that people in the 20's didn't say “Old Sport” after every single thing they said. And yes, I know the forced nature of the affectation is sort of the point, but it goes way past that and into unintentional parody less than half way in.

Infusing heart and soul into such two dimensional characters isn't just a matter of placing them in the context of a more standard romance, you also have to make them believably capable of human emotion. But then, to ask that of Baz Luhrmann is to ask him to actually have reverence for something other than his own visual aesthetic, tonal congruity be damned. At the risk of spoiling an almost 90 year old book, the ending revolves around a car accident that leaves a woman killed. As I watched this woman fly through the air in what almost certainly would have been in 3D had I spent the extra bucks, the stark lack of subtlety and poignancy was gob smacking, almost garnering some respect for being so cravenly unsentimental, and then whipping right back into disgust.

And yet, given all of this sturm and drang, what amazes me most about Luhrmann's Gatsby is how amidst so much beauty and spectacle, he still managed to make the film so incredibly boring. At about the half way point, just as Gatsby and Daisy are meeting for the first time after five years apart, the film shifts completely from one that was at least visually engaging if not actually interesting, into one that had me very nearly dozing off more than once. For all my criticism of the man's work, I can't fault his ability to craft intricate and bombastic eye candy to keep my attention. Often the style is almost enough to make me forget that the journey of any given Baz Luhrmann movie will invariably travel up into his own ass, but here, even this wasn't enough.

Baz Luhrmann making The Great Gatsby is like The Walt Disney company making an animated musical adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath from the perspective of the Joad family's wacky talking Turtle named Okie. Some of the elements are there, some in place, others re-arraigned to fit a paradigm that it should never ever be wedged into, and none of it turns out well. That it would be good was too much to ask, but that it would be so boring is just mind boggling. Not being a fan of the book, I frankly question whether this is a story worthy of adapting to the big screen at all, but just as a fan of logic and reason, I know enough to recognize that it shouldn't be adapted like this.

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