Friday, May 31, 2013

In Theaters: The Great Gatsby

The worst thing I can find to say about Baz Luhrmann's film version of The Great Gatsby is that it's not as good as the book. It's the best adaptation we're likely to get, though, and that's because it engages with its source material rather than reveres it. The theoretical blasphemy of adding 3-D, hyperkinetic cinematography, loads of CGI, and Jay-Z to a richly nuanced critique of Jazz Age decadence turns out to be just the thing to make the story work in another medium, and the real surprise is that this approach doesn't drown out the book's tricky subtleties. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's original work, it's both cynical and deeply moving, a tragic sort of love story which sees the futility of dreams as something to admire.

The story is mostly unchanged from the novel, but given a framing device- Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in treatment for a number of nervous disorders, and is advised to write down some of the experiences that brought him such mental distress. So he relates the tale of moving to the neighborhood of West Egg, next to reclusive millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nobody quite knows Gatsby's past or where his money comes from, but it turns out he and Nick were in the Great War together, and he soon becomes privy to Jay's secret- he's in love with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a lost sweetheart now married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and living right across the bay. Jay gets Nick to arrange a meeting between the two, and an affair begins anew, but inevitably, something attained is not as grand as the dream of having it.

Luhrmann, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce, takes an appropriately expressionist approach with the material; rather than recreate the precise, and now charmingly quaint, details of the Jazz Age, the film aims to convey the emotional experience of an age of excess and decadence through saturated colors, a blend of modern music (with a soundtrack produced by Jay-Z) with the occasional diegetic bit of jazz or organ playing, and all sorts of flashy visual tricks. In truth it's hard to say just how much of the wild parties and high-speed joyrides are an exaggeration; the film has fewer outright breaks with reality than Moulin Rouge, and the feeling is less one of camp than of getting across just how profoundly messed up the times were.

What's remarkable is that in all this excess, the small quiet moments still stand out. Gatsby's reunion with Daisy in Nick's humble cottage, the three running around Gatsby's mansion during a thunderstorm, and a tense confrontation in a hotel room all manage to be intense and startlingly real. That the film's sets and setpieces aren't realistic doesn't prevent the film from creating its own reality, one with its own emotional pull. The film still has time for the subtleties of Fitzgerald's text, as well as its less subtle images (the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg are appropriately ominous); granted, it takes a bit of a shortcut by having Nick narrate much of the text, but given that so much of the novel's strength is in its prose the filmmakers can't be blamed for wanting to retain it.

A lot of the credit for making the film's subtler moments work goes to the cast. DiCaprio has, over the past decade or so, grown into the range necessary to play Gatsby both as a charismatic playboy and a desperate, ultimately naive man; Mulligan's inherent charisma is such that we can still sympathize with Daisy even as she shows signs of not being the woman Gatsby imagined. Particularly ingenious is the casting of Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker; a relative newcomer, Debicki not only captures the look but also the attitude of the sort of social butterfly who can never pay enough attention to really care about something. The film's soundtrack deserves praise as well; the blending of period and modern music is really quite expert, the original score is memorable, and there's a Lana Del Rey song that, as on the nose as it is, manages to be haunting.

There just isn't much to be said against this film, beyond nitpicking how it chooses to make cinematic one of the most respected literary works of all time. Luhrmann and company have done right by the book, but not in a timid, reverential way- they've made it into something that works as a movie, that plays on the emotions of the story rather than the surface of it. It's easy to dismiss films like this as all gloss and no substance, but the truth is that style informs substance, and vice versa. The Great Gatsby is the first genuinely great movie I've seen this year, and it represents the kind of risk taking I like to see.

Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Grade: A

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