Saturday, May 11, 2013

Have You Seen Any Of Those Talking Pictures, Old Sport?

Reel To Reel: The Great Gatsby

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (in 3D)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Brief Violence, A Few Curse Words, Two Sexually Suggestive Scenes (Notice I didn't add "Smoking" like the MPAA did. I refuse to lump cigarettes into a new category of film obscenity, something that comes more from the health police than the moral police.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece has made it into countless high-school literature courses, except for the ones I took. So I will not try to tell you whether or not it lives up to the novel. Honestly, asking any movie based on a classic novel to achieve the same level of prestige ignores the fact we are dealing with two different mediums: one speaks to our imaginations, the other to our senses. Expecting full faithfulness of a film adaptation is not setting the bar too high -- it's moving the bar to a different room.

In the broad outlines of plot, The Great Gatsby sticks to the source material. But director Baz Luhrmann's film is focused on what Fitzgerald was trying to do in words: capture the flavor and decadence of the Roaring Twenties. By that measure, he succeeds glamorously. The movie bathes us in lavish sets and stylish wardrobes. Computer-generated imagery transforms New York City into its Jazz Age self. We jump headfirst into over-the-top parties drowning in glittering girls, gangsters, bootlegged booze, dapperness, and debauchery. They're circuses without animals. The film is tailored nicely to 3D, with confetti and streamers flying in our faces. At times the dialogue explodes into brisk binges, as if the characters are reciting blank verse in a musicless musical. Some of it seems there only for rhythm. Every scene feels choreographed rather than directed. You may have already heard tsk-tsking about Luhrmann substituting hip-hop music for 20's jazz in some sequences. His rationalization: jazz was the hip-hop of its day. It's supposed to make us connect more closely with the film, but I didn't buy into that. Luhrmann does such a fine job recreating the past, so why not go all in?

I won't try to rehash a plot many of you know except to say it revolves around mysterious tycoon Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) who is trying to woo his one true love, Daisy (Mulligan). She's in a loveless marriage to Tom (Edgerton), living in a mansion across a Long Island bay from Gatsby's monstrous estate, site of his wild parties. Nick Carraway (Maguire) lives in a rustic cottage next door. He is a relative of Daisy's and narrator of both the novel and movie. However, the film adds the unnecessary device of placing Carraway in therapy, asked to write out his thoughts as a means of getting more of Fitzgerald's prose on screen. Luhrmann adds special effects to some of that text, making words float around the frame or allowing letters to drop like snowflakes.

In the book, Carraway is drawn into a fascination with Gatsby and becomes one of his few true friends. But Maguire's interpretation has him mostly along for the ride, alternating between innocent and awkward. The part doesn't seem right for him. As for DiCaprio, he could play Gatsby in his sleep. The heartthrob the girls gushed over in Titanic has perfected roles featuring mannered men of stature who've worked their way up. Mulligan and Edgerton do just fine.

I like this movie, even though I know people will consider it literary sacrilege. Four versions have been filmed, one featuring Robert Redford, but none seeming to nail it for the cultural elite. They are not going to like this one either because of its style over substance -- ironically, one of Fitzgerald's themes. They'll be disappointed the film doesn't weigh the novel's moral warnings heavily enough. They'll demand a Great American Film from a Great American Novel. It's an admirable goal, but... where did that bar go again, Old Sport?

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