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The Great Gatsby (2013)

If you went to high school at any time in the past few decades (particularly an American high school), then it’s generally assumed that you were supposed to have read “The Great Gatsby.” It’s widely regarded as a defining work of American literature, in large part because of how symbolically dense it is for being so relatively short. Though I first read the book in my teenage years, I don’t think I ever really understood it until I got a bit older and more jaded about the world.

Put simply, the book is all about characters who use their wealth and materialism to cover up how hollow and fake their lives really are. It’s uncannily relevant in hindsight: The book was written and set in the 1920s, back when money was flowing, everyone was partying, and no one knew that all the good times were built on a house of cards until it was too late. It was a timely subject then and it’s a timely subject now. Mindless greed and shallow pleasures have only gotten more prolific in the years since, and there’s a growing sentiment against the spoiled few who come by their wealth and power with no responsibility at all.

Though “Gatsby” has of course been adapted and reimagined several times in various media (the 1974 movie, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow reading from a Francis Ford Coppola script, is probably the most famous example), we of the “Occupy Wall Street” generation were probably due for another go-round. It’s time for another telling of this classic story, but who would be crazy enough to take on this romantic, tragic, epic, spectacular, and thematically dense tale that’s been univerally known and beloved for decades?

…Oh hai, Baz Luhrmann.

As a critic, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I had some very solid expectations going into this one. The trailers were enough to show that this would be visually spectacular, though Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge were already enough to prove that Luhrmann could make some dazzling visuals if nothing else. And of course, the cast is totally beyond reproach. However, I had a tremendous amount of concern regarding Luhrmann’s ability to handle the story’s more intellectual aspect. I had already seen him butcher Shakespeare, after all, and heaven knows that Moulin Rouge wasn’t exactly a great piece of storytelling.

The long and short of it is this: For better or worse, The Great Gatsby met my expectations precisely. Call me biased, but that’s how it is.

To start with, I am so extremely glad that I went out of my way and paid the premium to see this movie in 3D. From the opening credits, this film makes it abundantly clear that it must be seen in 3D on the biggest possible screen if it’s going to be seen at all. There is absolutely no alternative. Set designs and costume designs this gobsmackingly beautiful demand to be viewed in a huge multiplex with all the bells and whistles attached.

The period costumes are lavish and authentic, thanks in no small part to the filmmakers’ partnership with Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. The use of color is every bit as extraordinary as you’d expect from a Luhrmann picture. The CGI might be a little bit dodgy in places, but I’d argue that the blatantly artificial nature of all the flash and pizazz onscreen only emphasizes the greater theme.

By the way, it bears mentioning that Catherine Martin — one of the producers — was credited as the production designer and costume designer for this film. In fact, she was the production designer for every single one of Luhrmann’s pictures, and his loyal costume designer since Moulin Rouge. Oh, and did I mention that she’s Luhrmann’s wife? Well, she’s Luhrmann’s wife.

Alas, the visuals are greatly marred by Luhrmann’s tragic inability to know when enough is enough. From slow-motion shots to narration text writing itself on the screen, Luhrmann shows his typical directing style of “randomly throw absolutely everything he can at the camera and hope that something sticks.” A halfway-decent director might have done some tests in pre-production and decided to trim whatever doesn’t work toward his vision, but Luhrmann just barges ahead and clutters up the screen.

Then there’s the music. Jay-Z (points for the unorthodox approach, if nothing else) is credited as an exec-producer and he was of course a huge influence on the soundtrack. All well and good, but then blatantly techno music starts playing during Gatsby’s party, and a car full of black people drive by while blasting “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” It isn’t even a cover or anything, it’s the exact same song that was released in goddamn 2001. Then we’ve got covers of modern songs — “Back to Black” and “Crazy in Love” among them — that are done in ’20s style. And then we’ve got original songs like Florence and the Machine’s “Over the Love” and Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful.”

Once again, the movie suffers because the filmmakers couldn’t just pick a direction and stick with it. I get what the filmmakers were going for, bridging the two historical periods with music that’s as relevant to us as it was to the people of 1925. Unfortunately, when the period setting is so painstakingly authentic and the music is so blatantly modern, the results are never going to mesh. Even more baffling, this is from the guy who made Moulin Rouge! Flashy period reimaginings of modern songs was one of the things that movie did best, so why did Luhrmann try to reinvent the wheel for this one?

In any case, I thought that the most effective songs in the soundtrack were also the ones pushed to the background. The aforementioned retro covers are very good, as are the original songs. It certainly helps that Florence Welch and Lana Del Ray both have a kind of soulful and timeless quality to their voices. Such a pity that Jay-Z couldn’t have stayed behind the scenes as a producer and let either of them take center stage.

Then we have the actors. Surprising absolutely no one, Leonardo DiCaprio crushes it as the eponymous Gatsby. Looking back on DiCaprio’s career — especially his more recent renaissance — it seems like everything he’s done up until now has been in preparation for this role. It’s almost like he was born and raised to play this impossibly handsome and charming self-made aristocrat whose hollow life and tragic romance are tearing him apart from within. It’s staggering how well DiCaprio plays this man who entertains so many people with so many extravagant shows, yet all of his time and effort are ultimately rewarded with nothing but apathy from his peers. I’m sure I can’t imagine how this character came so naturally to DiCaprio.

There’s also Carey Mulligan, whose elfin china-doll looks might have been genetically engineered to play such a pretty and frail little nothing as Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki somehow landed the part of Jordan Baker with only one other screen credit to her name, and I hope she finds more work ASAP. Joel Edgerton does wonderfully as a pompous, bigoted, hypocritical, drunken bully. Isla Fisher’s character is filled to the brim with self-destructive joie de vivre. Jason Clarke’s portrayal of George Wilson — a kind-hearted man doomed by his own simple and thick-headed nature — is heartbreaking.

I’m sorry to say that the weak link of the cast is Tobey Maguire, but that’s through no fault of his own. Nick Carraway, after all, is supposed to be a relative nonentity who observes the proceedings in a detached way. Yet at the same time, Nick needs just enough personality that the other characters — and the audience — can take an interest in what he says and thinks. On paper, Maguire seems like the perfect actor to play such a role and he does indeed do a good job of it. The problem is in Maguire’s voice. For all of his strengths as an actor, Maguire doesn’t have a very expressive or confident voice. That’s a big problem here, as a huge chunk of Fitzgerald’s (mutilated) prose is conveyed through Nick’s excessive narration, and Maguire’s voice simply isn’t enough to do it justice.

The horrid abuse of voice-over is another problem this movie has. To start with, the voice-over is presented as a framing device, with Nick recounting the story to his psychiatrist. The approach is as unnecessary as it is lazy and uninspired. For another thing, the voice-over narration is frequently redundant. All too often, Nick will talk about things that have already been explained elsewhere, will later be explained elsewhere, or are plainly visible at that very moment.

With all of that said, it must be noted that the text’s most famous themes and beloved symbols are all adapted quite faithfully. The green light, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, the colored shirts, the “old money/new money” feud, and so many others are here and nicely intact. They also benefit a great deal from the sterling visuals, I might add. However, for every exchange of dialogue that was brought to the screen nearly verbatim, the screenwriters put in something like “I’m taking her away from you, Carraway! Rich girls don’t marry poor boys. She’s mine!” Pretty much every single time the filmmakers try to condense or add onto the source text, it backfires terribly.

The thing about Baz Luhrmann — and about The Great Gatsby in particular — is that he doesn’t seem to realize when he’s out of his depth. Bless his heart, Luhrmann really brought his A-game to this movie and he brought a ton of talented actors along for the ride. Unfortunately, the man is so mindlessly in love with his own proclivities for gaudy excess that he makes Michael Bay look like Kathryn Bigelow. His sloppy direction makes a mess out of otherwise brilliant visuals, and his lazy screenwriting can’t hope to do justice to the source material. Sure, it might be unfair to compare any modern screenplay to one of the great literary works of the 20th century, but trying to adapt such a work kind of invites the comparison, don’t you think?

Despite all of my nagging complaints with regard to the music and the voice-overs and Luhrmann’s incompetent direction, I can still find it in my heart to give this film a hesitant recommendation. The 3D visuals are easily worth the price of admission, and the cast (especially DiCaprio) turns in work that’s simply too good to be ignored. Plus, there’s a clear passion and knowledge about the source text that does a lot to redeem the movie’s failures.

The movie gets a passing grade entirely on effort and ambition. Whether that’s worth a 3D ticket is up to you.

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