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by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

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Watching “The Great Gatsby”

By Sara Foss
Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Maybe “The Great Gatsby” just wasn’t meant to be a movie.

Not that director Baz Luhrmann’s take on the great F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is a bad film. It’s engaging and absorbing, with a bright, sumptuous and sometimes dizzying style that almost always makes for a visual feast. And it’s well-acted and fairly faithful to the book. But Luhrmann’s reverence for the novel is actually a bit of a hindrance after a while: He makes such liberal use of Fitzgerald’s stirring prose (at times, quotes from the book dance across the screen as Nick Carraway types) that almost every frame makes you think, “What I should really do is re-read this book.” In the end, “The Great Gatsby” is a decent enough film, undone by its inability to achieve the same level of greatness as the book from which its adapted.

Of course, it’s a bit unfair to knock the new film version for failing to reach the same impressive heights as the novel — one of the greatest in American literature. And “The Great Gatsby” is actually better than anyone had a right to expect. I’m actually a fan of two of Luhrmann’s earlier films, “Moulin Rouge!” and “Strictly Ballroom,” but I wasn’t sure “The Great Gatsby” would benefit from his flair for excess, anachronistic use of pop music, and big, bold emotional flourishes. Could he capture the subtleties and nuances of Fitzgerald’s book?

The short answer is: no. But he comes closer than I might have expected, largely because of the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, and Carey Mulligan, as Daisy Buchanan. Both DiCaprio and Mulligan are charismatic and beautiful while also suggesting the depths of their characters’ malaise and troubles; Gatsby, of course, is living a lie, and Mulligan is unhappy and torn between two men.

Observing all of this is Tobey Maguire as Carraway, a wide-eyed naif who believes that Gatsy is the most optimistic and genuine person he’s ever met, despite being a gangster. The relationships between these people are well-observed, and there are some sharp (for a Baz Luhrmann film) insights into social class, wealth and the emptiness of a certain type of lavish consumption. When Nick observes that Daisy and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) are rotten, careless people, you understand exactly what he’s talking about.

“The Great Gatsby” is a spectacle, and the film’s most spectacular scenes involve Gatsby’s palatial mansion and his wildly popular parties. But I quickly grew weary of all the spectacle — if Luhrmann’s goal was to make audiences experience the enervating effects of staying at a party too long, well, he succeeded. Perhaps my recent viewing of the Ken Russell Busby Berkeley tribute “The Boy Friend” made me immune to the charms of frame after frame of dancing girls and fancy costumes and riotous colors, but I actually thought the parties in “The Great Gatsby” were a big letdown — gaudy and tiresome.

Luhrmann uses various directorial tricks, such as unusual camera angles and slo-motion and swooping, whirling shots, to convey the debauched, Jazz Age drunkenness of his characters, but the whole thing struck me as very artificial. A movie can’t recreate the experience of being drunk, but I would have expected Luhrmann to come a bit closer than he actually does. Perhaps the best way to watch this film is after drinking four or five cocktails with your friends and listening to swing music.

In any case, Luhrmann succeeds in exposing the soullessness of the milieu his characters inhabit; what he doesn’t do is show us why it was ever appealing in the first place. Because Gatsby has a big swimming pool, lots of nice shirts and a cool car?

In the end, I’m going to grade “The Great Gatsby” on a curve. Luhrmann and his cast really put their heart into this film — they’ve really tried to create something different and magical and thought-provoking and sad. And if this film wasn’t based on such a good novel, perhaps it would be easier to accept on its wild, exuberantly tragic terms. My advice: See this film if you want to. But if you haven’t read the book, run out and grab a copy immediately.

Got a comment? Email me at sfoss@dailygazette.net.

 
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