Monday, May 20, 2013

The Great Gatsby

By Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann could make one heck of a music video.  The frenetic pace of his storyboards would fit quite well with the broad, simple themes of high-energy pop music.  They do not fare as well with culturally significant, nuanced pieces of literature.  While there are moments of The Great Gatsby in which Luhrmann captures the energy and awe needed to build up the mystery at the story’s center, the film is marked by a persistently harried aesthetic throughout.  As a result, scenes that require any delicacy feel sloppy and rushed.  It is as if Luhrmann was bored with his characters and their story and needed to distract himself by spicing up their troubles with visual flair.  Rather than paying justice to the emotional weight present in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale, Luhrmann tells this tale in broad strokes and primary colors, with the forcefulness of an ADHD teenager impatiently tapping his toe and fast-forwarding to see what happens next.
Yet, for two main reasons, the film is not a total loss and succeeds mildly even with Luhrmann’s misguided direction. The first reason is that, while the script lacked subtlety, many of the film’s performances did not.  Cary Mulligan and Joel Edgerton give strong, engaging performances in broadly emotional roles, and DiCaprio gives the film’s titular character surprising nuance and believability.  For the sake of showing some grace, I want to say this could be attributed to Luhrmann’s direction, but the stilted performance of Tobey Maguire as the film’s meek narrator makes me think otherwise.  It is hard to imagine any director could coax such great performances from most of his cast and allow one character to be so lacking in definition.  It is far more likely that this is simply a case of some great actors doing impressive work on their own accord.  The second, and more primary reason the film finds some success has already been mentioned – the inherent power of Fitzgerald’s story.  It is undeniable that, despite having to fight through (and against) the many glaring distractions of Luhrmann’s style, you simply want to learn more about the figure of Gatsby and see what happens next.  In short, it may not be a remotely suitable telling of this story, but the story is compelling enough to be interesting anyway.

A weak **½ out of ****

Luhrmann, the man behind the films Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, clearly was not a good fit for this story.  He has a very interesting and wholly unique approach, and with the right source material, I think he could sing (you could argue that Moulin Rouge was the right source material for his spectacular style).  Although I did not (and do not) find his frantic pace completely horrible or distracting, to me, it just felt a bit off.  He clearly reaches to try to engage an over stimulated and desensitized modern audience with a barrage of images and contemporary pop music, but to me, the style was utterly disengaging.  Never boring, but just never well connected to its source.
I feel like I'm in fifth grade again.
There were some things that worked very well, namely the top-notch performances, which anchored the film - especially from a perfect Carey Mulligan and excellent Leonardo DiCaprio, who managed to be intensely obsessed and utterly disarming at the same time.  As far as Tobey Maguire goes, I thought he gave a very good performance; it was the character development as written that was problematic.  He did the very best he could with the uneven script he was given.  In addition, the set design was whimsical and fun and I mostly really liked it.  I would have liked to have been more immersed in the music of the film, and I thought that the contemporary soundtrack frequently worked.  I think, generally, Luhrmann has a good sense for how to use music in film, further evidenced by his previous works.  All in all however, it simply didn’t come together and didn’t find a center.

** ½ out of ****

               You hit on two points I would like to address – one in repentance and one push-back.  The first is the performance of Maguire as the film’s narrator.  I must admit that my own postulations are probably due to the fact that I have rarely enjoyed Luhrmann’s work in the past.  As such, I was probably a bit unfair in saying the weaknesses of Maguire’s performance could be attributed to Luhrmann’s direction.  After all, you make a very good point in pointing out that his character was not given much focus from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s script.  It seems that, throughout the film, Luhrmann simply gave priority to the other roles.  The film seemed to be so preoccupied with its central romantic conflict that it barely gave more than a glance in the narrator’s direction and his own struggles.  This is, after all, one of the reasons the book has been called unadaptable – its narrator is not an active participant in the large bulk of its plot, but he is nevertheless the all-important moral center of the story.
                The second point was the use of contemporary music in the film.  I would like to hear why you liked this aspect of the film.  I found it to be somewhat out of place.  While I understand and appreciate Luhrmann’s intention to modernize the story, using rap music in a 1920s setting was jarring, especially since these musical interludes were not consistent, unevenly crashing into the otherwise period soundtrack.  I would have liked to see him either go all out and use all contemporary music or not use it at all.  Using both period and contemporary music was distracting.

                It’s interesting how our previous thoughts of a director’s body of work color our viewing of current films – in this case, your view of Maguire’s performance.  I’m glad you came around. ;) music!
                 As far as music goes, I feel like his intent was frequently to parallel the 1920s to today or at least more recent times.  I thought that he was very interested in showing us how “nothing changes under the sun.”  In this way, I thought it worked in many places.  And I felt as though including 1920s music set it apart, so it lived in this interesting place – both modern and in period.  I kind of liked it.
                In your great dislike for Luhrmann, what do you think he could do well?  Would other directors be better suited to this material?  Who?  I don’t know that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson could have adapted this particularly well either, and I think he’s one of the greatest directors working today.

                I like your thought about the contemporary music in the film – that it being in the film would be a comment on how society ultimately has not changed.  I also like the thought that the film creates a unique space – not quite the 1920s, but most certainly not today.  This was, I admit, an interesting place to dwell as a viewer.  Yet, I still feel the film’s music was more a distraction from its larger romantic themes.  Sometimes what works in theory simply doesn’t translate well on screen.
                Your final question brings up a good point as well – it is not that Luhrmann is a bad director: he just many times chooses the wrong material.  There are only a handful of rare directors in film history that could handle a wide range of genres and themes well (Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks come to mind), but that doesn’t mean everyone else is a bad filmmaker.  Perhaps one part of being a great filmmaker is knowing what projects to choose.  In the case of Luhrmann, I would argue his style works best with broad themes and characters fit into campy pulp.  His early success, Strictly Ballroom, would fall into this category, and I thought it was a far more cohesive film than his work since.

                I also enjoyed Strictly Ballroom, and I would argue that Moulin Rouge has that same kind of broad pulpy camp, and I thought it worked very well for Luhrmann.

                One of the most noticeable elements of the film is the visual style as well as the set design – both of which are of great spectacle.  The film looks very cool – lots of glitz and glamour that is large and over the top.  Generally, this isn’t something I mind.  However, it just didn’t fit very well with the story and was mostly distracting.  I kind of understand why it was the way it was, but I just don’t think it worked, and I thought, especially, that the feverish pace of the editing and the camera movement distracted from the story.

                Some will certainly walk out of the theater and say, “Wow, that had some really cool visuals!”  Yet, It is interesting that something so dynamic could be a detriment to the film’s thematic and emotional core.  I compare the spectacle of this film to a really great musical score in an otherwise bad movie – that specific aspect of the film might be impressive as a stand-alone work, but if it doesn’t compliment the rest of the material, it is better to listen to it at home apart from the film.
                Truly, had Lurhmann just toned down the spectacle and used his signature visual panache in just a few more dramatic or more exciting scenes (like just the extravagant party scenes or something along those lines), I feel like the film could have worked well.  Coupled with a more relatable and consistent Nick Carraway, the moral center, the film could have been quite good.  Alas.

Two as one rating: ** ½ out of ****

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