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Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby

Ah, The Great Gatsby, a classic novel that has once again been adapted to film.  When this project was initially announced, many were dubious due to the classic nature of the source material as well as the flamboyant, over-the-top directing style of Baz Luhrmann.  Another thing that worried many about this movie?  The use of 3D.  After a brief delay from Christmas to Summer, we now get to see Mr. Luhrmann's take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's work in all its three dimensional glory.  Shane decided to review this film for Geek Rex not only because he was the first of the team to see it, but also because Shane holds a degree in English as well as a Master's in Secondary Education.  In other words, seeing a new film version of Gatsby is pretty much required to hold on to such a degree.  It is also worthwhile for a teacher to see simply to know what their students will be watching instead of reading the book.  If you're just a casual movie goer, however, wondering if this is something to spend your time and money with this weekend, no worries, we here at Geek Rex have got you covered!  Want to know how this new spin on a classic novel turned out?  You're just going to have to keep reading!

Just in case you have forgotten your high school English class, here is a quick refresher: Set in the midst of the roaring 1920's in New York, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a man who has just moved to the big city and is, like anyone else, looking to make it big.  From the instant he moves to his new abode, Nick is surrounded by the mystery of his neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Gatsby, known only for the lavish parties he holds, has a few secrets of his own, however, and a connection to Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) which just may unravel the lavish lifestyle everyone involved is so used to living.

It is quite hard to decide where to begin with this review.  Baz Luhrmann's take on Fitzgerald's novel is one that each trailer has made a point to show just how flashy and flamboyant this film will be.  This should come as no surprise to anyone with a knowledge of Luhrmann's previous work, however, as both Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet are also flamboyant features that make so much a spectacle of themselves that they border on being campy.  Rest assured, Gatsby has its moments that are every bit the spectacle which the trailers promised.  That being said, perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the film is that these moments of spectacle are not as over-bearing as the trailers might have you believe.  In fact, the film feels much more reserved than Luhrmann's previous work, with the focus being much more on the dynamic characters and the actors who portray them.  It is fair to say that the characters are more the spectacle in Gatsby than any of the effects.

None of these characters helps fit the bill of spectacle than the main man himself: Jay Gatsby.  Leonardo DiCaprio once again proves to us that he desperately needs an Oscar as, from the moment he first makes an appearance on screen, he steals the thunder from anyone else in this movie.  Gatsby's initial appearance to Nick is perfectly orchestrated, and serves to further highlight just how intriguing this man really is.  DiCaprio does an incredibly job of showing great screen presence, with his portrayal of Gatsby feeling absolutely larger than life.  Whenever Gatsby is on screen, your eyes are always glued to him no matter what else may be going on.  His presence is so commanding that he even stops the score of the film momentarily just by raising his hand.  Even as the story slowly peels away the layers of Gatsby, he is still an ever mystifying character to behold, and DiCaprio takes full advantage of his mystique.  In the few moments of the film where we see Gatsby show his true emotion, we get a taste of just how much a front Jay Gatsby really is.  Whether it is being so nervous to speak to the love of his life that he ruins a perfectly good suit in the rain or exploding in a fit of rage, it becomes abundantly clear that he has spent a very long time building up a facade.  Despite these character revealing moments that are there to show the audience the lack of authenticity in all the glamor, DiCaprio is able to play Gatsby with such grace and charm that you instantly become enamored with his demeanor.  Playing Gatsby may not win DiCaprio an Oscar, but it is more evidence to the fact that the man has put together an impressive body of work over the past few years that is in drastic need of reward.

Baz Luhrmann takes full advantage of the setting of the novel when making this film.  This is not your average period piece of the Jazz Age that comes coupled with a touch of nostalgia for a time when things were just so much simpler.  Instead, what we have here is a film which seeks to expose what life during this time period was really like (much in the way of the novel before it).  1920's New York was a hive of debauchery with a class of people which were beginning to drown in the decadence of society, and Luhrmann is not afraid to draw back the curtain of nostalgia on a time in history that was perhaps a lot more dirty than members of that generation would have you believe.  There is a scene very early on in the film which showcases Nick and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) having a bit of fun with some less than reputable ladies.  Despite his knowing this entire situation seems wrong (Tom is married after all), Nick is more than willing to take the dive as the temptation of women and booze is just too much for him.  This is an almost uncomfortable scene to watch, but it greatly shows the exposure happening in this film of the more seedy underbelly of the period.  What really helps to make this almost a despicable display of lust and greed is that everyone involved in these taboo acts seems to get a large sense of self-satisfaction from their deeds.  Nick is one of the only characters in this film who appears to have a conscious, but even that can be gotten rid of after a few glasses of whiskey.

It seems odd to write this paragraph for a period piece, but one of the film's greatest strong suits are the special effects.  The decision to film the movie in 3D was one that was met with a number of raised eyebrows as the technology seemed so disparate from the type of story told in the novel.  While this film may not convince 3D skeptics of the merits of the technology, that does not mean it is not used beautifully within the film.  Not only is there quite a bit of depth involved, but the use of 3D helps to add to the almost fairy tale quality of certain aspects of the film, which only help to further heighten the moments where the realism seeps back in.  Confetti, snow, fog, stars, and even, at some parts, words from a typewriter are all utilized brilliantly with the 3D technology.  It becomes abundantly clear in many of the scenes within Manhattan that green screen was used to make the characters appear to be in 1920's locales.  Such moments are nice, but also a little bit weaker as it takes away from some of the needed grounding in realism.  Where the strongest blend of special effects and practicality come together are in the lavish party scenes at Gatsby's mansion.  The set of Gatsby's house is stunning (and apparently based on Fitzgerald's inspiration for Gatsby's abode).  Even when the house is lacking in guests, it is still a stunning bit of scenery for the characters to interact with.  But when those parties are going on, that is when Gatsby is at is most inviting and the film is all the more beautiful for it.

One of the more striking aspects of the film is its soundtrack.  Luhrmann and producer Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter make the fascinating decision to couple their visuals of the Roaring 20's with contemporary music.  Boozy apartment parties are accompanied with rap, and Gatsby's parties are orchestrated to unusual covers of modern tunes.  While the choice of songs for many of these scenes seems appropriate enough for this particular version of the period, it does take a little bit of time to get used to hearing something more at home on the radio today with an image of flappers and gangsters.  There are a few awkward moments where the song choice does not seem to add up with the scene as well as Luhrmann may have hoped, but it does work for his interpretation.  A cover of "Crazy in Love," though, works quite well and may be the best example of the blend of old imagery with new music.  On the whole, however, the score is much better than the soundtrack.

Despite the large amounts of things this film gets right, there is one major thing this movie does which serves as its largest detriment.  That would be the character of Nick Carraway.  Tobey Maguire is a fine actor most of the time (if we are ignoring Spider-man 3 for a moment) and he does a decent job in his portrayal of Nick, but the character ultimately feels useless.  Once Nick's over-arching purpose of introducing us to the world of the film and re-connecting Gatsby and Daisy is fulfilled, Nick suddenly becomes a background character who has almost nothing to do for the remaining act and a half.  Sure, it is understandable that Nick would stick around as we are hearing this entire story from his point of view, but, were this film not narrated by Nick, he could easily be cast aside halfway through.  Although, if we are being honest here, any gripes about the importance of Nick's character are really ones which should be lodged at Fitzgerald as this problem does seem to stem from the source material.  That being said, perhaps writers Luhrmann and Craig Pearce could have adjusted their adaptation to make Nick less of a device/fly on the wall, and more of a dynamic character.  Instead, what the writers opt to do is make the film a framing narrative where Nick is writing this story from a mental institution some time later.  This could have been an interesting turn of events, but it is given very little explanation as to why Nick is in this place aside from a small shot of a list of defects in his personality.  This lack of exposition makes the entire choice to frame the movie in this way very confusing.  

Though DiCaprio completely steals the film, it is worth mentioning two other performances in particular.  Carey Mulligan is great as Daisy.  It seems a bit shocking at first that a woman so upset that her husband is cheating would so easily betray their marriage, but, again, this is another misgiving with the source material.  Mulligan is still a relatively unknown actress, but hopefully this film will garner enough attention from casual movie-goers to help her get future work.  Daisy may not be the most fascinating of characters, but Mulligan does a more than capable job of playing her.  The chemistry between Mulligan and DiCaprio is also quite strong.  Another acting standout in his film is Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan.  While Buchanan is a despicable character, Edgerton plays him in such a way that the audience can almost grow to sympathize with him as the film goes on.  In a pivotal scene between Gatsby and Tom, the characters almost switch place in terms of who is the terrible person here.  You may not completely root for Tom, but it is guaranteed that you will be drawn in by Edgerton's performance as it is quite captivating.

Unlike many of the other tent pole features coming out during this summer, it is difficult to say if The Great Gatsby is worth rushing out to see.  If you are in desperate need to get your 1920's or DiCaprio fix, then by all means go, it is a very good film.  For everyone else, however, perhaps it would be best to wait and see the film later in the summer during one of the "dry" periods when nothing major is coming out.  Whenever you decide to see Gatsby, though, you are in for quite a film.  Luhrmann may still meet some backlash for many of his decisions in making the movie, but it is a very nice adaptation of the novel.  Besides, Luhrmann's style is one everyone should be familiar with by now, taking away any surprise in the over-the-top nature of it all.  It does such a good job of adapting the source material, in fact, that it makes some of the inadequacies of the classic novel very apparent.  That being said, it is worth it to see DiCaprio pull off another great performance and, shockingly enough, it is also worth seeing in 3D.  You may not lose much by opting for the cheaper 2D ticket, but there will definitely be something lost if you wait for DVD/Blu-Ray as this is very much so a movie meant to be enjoyed on a large screen.  The film is a worthy companion to the novel, but nothing can ever take the place of such a classic work.

Rating: B+

Summary: The Great Gatsby is a visually stunning adaptation of the classic novel with a phenomenal performance from Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role.  While the film does have some issues with characters and its song choice, the good far outweighs the bad.  See it on the big screen.
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