Sunday, May 12, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY


THE GREAT GATSBY: Leonardo Dicaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, directed by Baz Luhrmann (143 min.)

It is almost an impossible task, adapting the most celebrated American novel of the 20th century without losing some of the magic. Baz Luhrmann’s plan, then, was to add enough verve and energy and opulence into his adaptation of The Great Gatsby with the hope that this decadence might mask any shortcomings. Not that the shortcomings are glaring – all of the themes and ideas of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece are in place and effective – but the extravagance of Luhrmann feels like overcompensation. At least early on. Once we are given a moment to breathe the film settles in, we are allowed to indulge in the performances more than the fireworks. And yet, style remains, and keeps the proceedings at an arm’s length.

Tobey Maguire stars as our narrator, Nick Carraway, the dreamer with stars in his eyes and a great admiration for the wealth and luxury of the upper crust of New York. He leaves Yale, gets a job working in the booming stock market of 1922 and moves into a cottage amidst towering mansions in West Egg, the cove of “new money” opposed by the familial wealth of East Egg. Across the water in East Egg is Nick’s cousin, Daisy (the lovely Carey Mulligan) and her scoundrel of a sporting, philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). But what is more curious to Nick is his own next-door neighbor, Gatsby, a mysterious man who everyone knows but practically no one has ever seen.

Gatsby’s home is a castle where each and every weekend parties are held that would make even the most flamboyant party animal blush. There are endless strands of confetti, big bands, dancers, fireworks, and just about everything one could imagine that made the 20s so rip roaring. Everything, that is, except Gatsby it seems, whose legend outweighs his reality. When Gatsby decides to make himself known to Nick in the middle of a weekend party, he is polite and young and played to perfection by Leonardo Dicaprio with bronze skin and locks of hair seemingly dipped in gold.

Gatsby remains a mystery for the majority of the film, and in the hopes that most of us at least know of the novel I will skip over the basic plot developments. Of course, Luhrmann’s screenplay ( co-written with Craig Pearce) expand of Fitzgerald’s sparely-written novel, but the basic structure is still intact. There is the blinking green light outside Daisy’s home, a symbol of longing for Gatsby who loves Daisy madly. There is the all-seeing eyes of the dilapidated billboard in the Valley of Ashes. There is the stark contrast of wealth between West and East Egg, and there is the underlying theme of false American wealth and success built on falsehoods. That Fitzgerald was able to see the hollowness of American capitalism before the crash in 1929 is fascinating in its own right, and having this adaptation in 2013 somehow feels as relevant now as it was in the early 1920s.

But this Great Gatsby is all about style, and Luhrmann’s dizzying array of visual excess that is almost too much to take in early on. The costumes and set designs and energy is undeniable and the colors and beauty of the picture is succinct, but delivered feverishly and relentlessly in the first act. I see the design here and the method behind Luhrmann’s madness, but the stamina of these early scenes cannot sustain. And once the film settles into its story this grow long and tiresome for long spells of time. What keeps the picture afloat through its bloated runtime are the performances from Dicaprio, who is dedicated to this role, Mulligan, whose eyes of sadness contrast her cherub face in a wonderfully enchanting way, and Joel Edgerton who steals the show in his scenes as the gruff Tom Buchanan. Maguire is almost forgotten by the time we reach the third act.

The Great Gatsby will divide viewers between those who enjoy Luhrmann’s style and those who find it distracting and too much to handle. I enjoy what Luhrmann tries with the novel’s most basic themes and elements, and his style does not ultimately ruin anything. It is the unevenness that holds the film back, and even though the performances try their best to save the day.

B