Thursday, October 31, 2013
"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Review
"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Review
Before the release of Baz Luhrmann's recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby", there have been three previous movie adaptations and a television movie version. None of these versions have been well received by the critics. Even this latest adaptation has been receiving mixed reviews. I must admit that I had been reluctant to see the movie, myself. But dazzled by the movie's MTV-style trailer, I decided to see it for the sake of the visual effects.
Many who have read Fitzgerald's novel or seen any of the previous adaptations, know the story. "THE GREAT GATSBY"told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby who settles in a large house in the fictional town of West Egg (for the noveau riche), on prosperous Long Island, during the summer of 1922 - the early years of the Jazz Age. Narrated by Gatsby's neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire's desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I and Nick's cousin. Unfortunately for Gatsby, Daisy is married to one of Nick's former Yale classmates, Tom Buchanan, who comes from old Chicago money. Tom is engaged in an extramarital affair with one Myrtle Wilson, who is the wife of a gas station owner located in the Valley of Ashes - a stretch of road between Long Island and Manhattan. Gatsby invites Nick to one of his nightly lavish parties, given to impress Daisy, who lives across Oyster Bay at East Egg, a neighborhood for those from old money. Nick learns from Jordan Baker, an old Louisville friend of Daisy's, that Gatsby would like him to arrange a meeting with his former love over afternoon tea. The two former lovers reunite on a rainy afternoon and re-ignite their love affair that eventually ends in tragedy.
If critics were hoping that Baz Luhrmann would produce and direct a flawless or near flawless adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel, they were bound to be disappointed. "THE GREAT GATSBY" is not flawless. There were times when I found the movie a bit too melodramatic - especially during the party sequences. And I never saw the need to open the film with Nick Carraway being treated for alcoholism in a sanatorium. Luhrmann and the movie's other screenwriter, Craig Pearce, apparently included the sanatorium additions to transform Nick's character into some F. Scott Fitzgerald clone. The movie even ended with Nick's written recollections being given the title of Fitzgerald's novel. Frankly, I found this dumb and unnecessary. I also found the party sequence held by Tom and his married lover Myrtle Wilson at a New York apartment rather frantic. I realize that Nick became drunk at this party. But this scene proved to be one in which Luhrmann's colorful style nearly got the best of him.
I suspect that many expect me to complain about some of the music featured in "THE GREAT GATSBY" - namely the director's use of hip hop music. However . . . I have no complaints about Luhrmann using modern day music in a film set in 1922. For some reason I cannot explain, I believe Luhrmann and composer Craig Armstrong did a pretty bang-up job in blending their occasional use of modern-day music with some of the movie's scenes. There were also complaints that Catherine Martin's costumes were not a complete accurate projection of 1920s fashion. I did notice that although the movie was set in 1922, the clothes seemed to be a reflection of the mid or late period of that decade. Then I saw images like the following:
Or images like the following for the male characters:
I had wept with exultation and joy at my first sight of Martin's costumes. Her costumes for this film are some of the most gorgeous I have seen in a period drama in quite a while. Absolutely . . . bloody . . . gorgeous. The moment I set eyes on those costumes, I realized that I could not care less whether her work was an accurate reflection of 1922 fashion or not. Martin also served as the movie's production designer. If there was any justice, this would earn double Academy Award nominations for both her costumes and the movie's production designs. Baz Luhrmann filmed "THE GREAT GATSBY" in Australia, which means that he and his crew had to re-create 1922 Long Island and Manhattan from scratch. Martin was basically responsible for the movie's early Art Deco look - especially for scenes set in Gatsby's East Egg manor, his Manhattan speakeasy, the Manhattan restaurant where Nick and Jordan met, the Buchanans' East Egg home and especially the bleak-looking Valley of Ashes, the location of George Wilson's garage and the infamous Dr. T. J. Eckleburg billboard. Needless to say, I was more than impressed. I was dazzled.
I have been so busy discussing the movie's technical aspects that I failed to say anything about Luhrmann and Pearce's adaptation of Fitzgerald's film. I have already expressed my displeasure at their attempt to transform Nick Carraway into some kind of Fitzgerald clone at the movie's beginning and end. But aside from this faux paus, I feel that the two did a pretty damn good job. Were they completely faithful to the novel? No. Did this spell disaster? For some moviegoers and fans of Fitzgerald's novel, it did. But I do not share their feelings. I do not demand that a movie or television production re-create a novel or play in exact details. That road leads to insanity and sometimes, disaster. Aside from what was done to Nick's character at the beginning and end, the movie featured a few other changes. In this movie, a grieving George Wilson learned from Tom Buchanan that Jay Gatsby owned the yellow car that killed Myrtle at the former's gas station. Unless I am mistaken, Tom had conveyed this news to George, when the latter paid a visit to his East Egg mansion in the novel. The movie featured flashbacks of Gatsby's life in North Dakota and his years spent with a millionaire named Dan Cody. But Gatsby's father did not make an appearance near the end of the movie (for which I am utterly grateful). Did these changes bother me? Nope, they did not. I was too busy admiring the energy that Luhrmann injected into Fitzgerald's tale. This was especially apparent in the pivotal scene featuring Gatsby and Tom's showdown over Daisy's affections in a Plaza Hotel suite. The scene crackled with emotions and an energy that seemed to be either lacking or at best, muted, in other adaptations. More importantly, Luhrmann and Pearce's screenplay finally lifted a fog and allowed me to fully understand and appreciate Fitzgerald's tale for the first time. I am afraid that the previous two adaptations (1974 and 2000) had bored me to the point that the emotions and theme behind the story had failed to elude me in the past. And that is the best part of Luhrmann's adaptation. For the first time, I finally understood the pathetic nature of the Jay Gatsby/Daisy Buchanan love story. And I am being complimentary.
A movie review would not be complete with a discussion on the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio became the fifth actor to portray Jay Gatsby aka James Gatz. And as usual, he was magnificent. In fact, I believe his Gatsby was the best I have ever seen on screen. He managed to maintain the character's mystery in the movie's first half without eliminating any of the character's strong emotions. Despite the attempt to transform Nick Carraway into a Fitzgerald clone, I had no problems with Tobey Maguire's portrayal of the character. In fact, he did an excellent job of conveying both Nick's observant nature and emotional attachment to Gatsby, while injecting a bit of warm humor and slight goofiness in the role. I realize that Maguire and DiCaprio had been friends for over two decades. I suspect that friendship made it easy for the pair to convey the growing friendship between Nick and Gatsby.
Carey Mulligan gave an exquisite performance as the quixotic Daisy Buchanan. Mulligan made it easy for viewers to understand how Gatsby fell so hard for her. She perfectly conveyed Daisy's superficial idealism and warmth. But Mulligan also skillfully allowed Daisy's more unpleasant side - her selfishness, mild snobbery and lack of courage - to ooze between the cracks in the character's facade. Joel Edgerton really impressed me in his portrayal of the brutish Tom Buchanan. In the actor's first scene, I felt as if he was laying it a bit thick in conveying the character's unpleasant nature. But Edgerton quickly grew into the role and portrayed Tom's brutality with more subtlety. He also did a great job in portraying the character's surprising talent for manipulation and genuine feelings for the doomed Myrtle.
For the role of Daisy's Louisville friend and golfer Jordan Baker, Luhrmann chose Australian-born stage-trained actress named Elizabeth Debicki for the role. And she did a pretty damn good job. In fact, I thought Debicki did a solid job of conveying Jordan's fast-living and cynical personality with great skill. Isla Fisher knocked it out of the ballpark as the fun-loving Myrtle Fisher. Not only did she gave a first-rate portrayal of Myrtle's garishness and warmth, but also the character's grasping ambition and desperation to escape from her stagnant and dull marriage to gas station owner George. Myrtle is not highly regarded by many Fitzgerald fans. But Fisher made it easy for me to feel some sparks of pity toward the latter's situation regarding her marriage to George. Speaking of the latter, "THE GREAT GATSBY"marked the third period drama in which I have seen Jason Clarke. His role as the pathetic George Wilson is a bit smaller, but Clarke made the best of it, especially in two scenes. One scene featured Clarke perfectly conveying George's clumsy attempt to toady Tom for a business transaction regarding the latter's car. And in another, he did a beautiful job in portraying George's pathetic grief over a woman who had stopped loving him a long time ago. This movie also marked a reunion for Clarke and Edgerton. Both had appeared in "ZERO DARK THIRTY". I also want to point out Amitabh Bachchan's much talked about portrayal of Gatsby's gambling friend, Meyer Wolfshiem - a fictionalized take on gambler/gangster Arnold Rothstein. No only did the actor looked unusual, he gave a lively, yet brief performance that I found quite captivating. And Jack Thompson gave a quiet (almost speechless) and subtle performance as Nick's psychiatrist Dr. Walter Perkins. STAR WARS fans should take note that eleven years ago, Thompson portrayed Cliegg Lars - father to Edgerton's Owen Lars - in "STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES".
I am the last person who will ever claim that this latest "THE GREAT GATSBY" is perfect. Trust me, it is not. But it is a very entertaining film that I believe captured the emotions and theme behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel better than any previous adaptation. More importantly, director Baz Luhrmann injected style and energy not only into the story itself, but also its visual look and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. I did not hesitate to see this movie at the first opportunity.