Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: "The Great Gatsby" is a Great Looking Luhrmann Film but a Decent Fitzgerald Adaptation

Leonardo DiCaprio
One of the most iconic tales in American literature is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Symbolizing the American dream and the right to throw lavish parties, the story has withstood the test of time, many adaptations, and has even entered the lexicon of high standards for the medium. Yet, there seems to be little in the way of producing a top notch adaptation, which may be to the book's credit, though also can be seen as a challenge. Still, is it possible that director Baz Luhrmann has found the formula and made the ultimate adaptation with a star-studded cast?

The best that can be said about The Great Gatsby through Luhrmann's eyes is that it looks amazing. While it may not be an exact replica of the 1920's from Fitzgerald's novel, the bright lights and flappers running around all have a lush, expansive aura to them that just screams fun. While an unfortunate music mix provided by executive producer Jay-Z tempts to ruin the mood, the atmosphere is all there and judging based on looks alone, this may be one of the best looking films of the year.

From the parties to the car, everything is shiny and almost painted as a picture. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is the story's narrator, though he seems to be a little unfocused on the world of wealth and booze. Numerous scenes see him staring wide-eyed at everything and just taking it all in. In many ways, Carraway is the blandest character in the story, if just because there isn't much that he feels to add to the story other than to connect certain plot points. He also seems rather useless until mysterious playboy Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes into the picture and tries to turn the film into a glorious party.

The film's success lies in the mystery. The less we know about Gatsby and his affairs, the more that the story thrives on this level of pure fun. The visuals dazzle and the party scenes, while a little claustrophobic, have a kitschy quality vibe to them. Gatsby the enigma definitely comes across as someone that you'd want to hang out with. However, as the entrance of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) proves, it isn't quite so great to be romantically involved with him. Once the deeper romance and troubles are established, Gatsby becomes this vulnerable, over-the-top person who has a lot of brooding to do. 

While it is fitting to the book, the drama just drags the story, and while DiCaprio gives a solid performance, the romance feels a little flat and cannot make the final half too satisfying. For all of the good will that was brought up in the first half to bring the universe to life, the second half dissects to a dreadful degree. Still, for all of the problematic elements, the lead performance keeps it afloat long enough to maintain interest and bring the climax to an emotional crescendo. It is weird to suggest, but for a 2 hour and 23 minute movie, there's some desire that there was more effort put into it. Maybe a shorter run time would have helped to make the brooding feel more impactful than it ended up being.

The Great Gatsby relies a little much on hyperbole. Where the film succeeds is in the process of bringing the visuals to life. Very few films will dazzle on the level that Luhrmann brought to this picture. However, adding dialogue to it only creates more problems and essentially bankrupts the picture's good intentions. For all of the beautiful costumes and scenery, there is that final half that only sort of works and a soundtrack that is a little too clunky and anachronistic for it to work on a visceral level. The film is actually quite good, though mostly with the volume lowered and the big screen flashing pretty pictures at you. It is a great nostalgia kick for fans of 1920's imagery with an equally engaging performance by DiCaprio. Still, the final act may be a little much to call it the great adaptation. At most, it is worthy of an afternoon rental.

Carey Mulligan

It seems that in the course of a few days, my partial enjoyment of the film seems to be on the side of the more positive reviews. I don't consider it a masterpiece by any stretch, but I did find it to be a fun time at the theaters. Luhrmann's style is definitely on display, and it is a welcome introduction to the world, even if it was actually shot in Australia for tax purposes. It may be too over the top, but so is the Gatsby legend, which only helped me to accept the universe a little more. 

Of everything I took away from this movie regarding Oscar buzz, I felt that right off the bat, this movie needs to get into Best Costume Design for sure. Looking at the film, everyone is dressed amazingly dapper and while maybe a little too bombastic, it adds that necessary shine to the story. The party scenes alone show a wide array of outfits that are every bit as inspired as the central cast and definitely make this feel like the fun 1920's that Luhrmann was going for.

This is the most logical way to get into the Oscars for numerous reasons. Notably, period pieces are easy access points when it comes to this category. Last year alone proved this with the winner being Anna Karenina. While The Great Gatsby would be one of the more modern eras to be noticed, it does have the bias that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a beloved author in American culture. Also, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was in this category in 2008. While not a winner, gives Fitzgerald-based work some leeway when it comes to the category.

However, then there is consideration that Luhrmann has had a decent track record with the Oscars. After a Best Art Direction and Set Decoration nomination for Romeo + Juliette, he has received at least one nomination for each of his proceeding films, including eight nominations for Moulin Rouge including Best Picture and Best Director. That film also won Best Art Direction and Set Decoration as well as Best Costume Design. Luhrmann's other two films have earned awards in these categories despite never winning again. Still, he has a hot streak when it comes to visual appearances. This gives me some hope that The Great Gatsby and all of its beautiful imagery will get a Best Costume recognition.

I am unsure if it deserves any other visual component nominations. At most, the Best Art Direction and Set Decoration could be in the cards. Still, I do not want to jinx my votes, as it is too early to really judge what other films stand a chance in these categories. However, just like Mirror Mirror last year, there is great potential for a film that comes out early in the year to sneak in a nomination, even if it is probably doomed to lose to a period piece from an earlier time.

Tobey Maguire
Then there are the other categories. With the recent reviews on critic aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 48% as of this writing. This isn't the best nor the worst, though as far as great 2013 films come, it pales compared to the appraisal for films such as Mud.  With the season just starting to heat up, this could easily be seen more as a blockbuster than an Oscar contender, which  will jinx any chances it has at top prizes, notably Best Picture, Best Director, or even Best Adapted Screenplay. These nominations don't seem plausible, considering the amount of short comings other critics laud on it.

But the bigger question, which actually seems kind of funny, is if Leonardo DiCaprio can sneak into the Best Actor race. He has been nominated three times and was controversially left out of the race for Django Unchained. Readers will know where I stand on that. Still, what is fascinating is that in recent interviews, Luhrmann has gone on record of stating that he wants his star to earn a nomination, appalled by his no-win situation. The argument that could be made for recent DiCaprio in recent years is that he's either been in blockbuster fare (Inception) that while great, doesn't strike Oscar voters as Best Actor material, or unfortunate scripts that wreck a decent performance (J. Edgar). DiCaprio is perfectly fine at acting, though the roles have each had an odd niche that just keeps him from feeling like an Oscar contender as of late.

But with The Great Gatsby, I think he stands his best chance. It is too early to determine who will make the cut (though I still am pro-James Franco in Spring Breakers), but as far as performances go, he hits a few beats. He plays a famous figure (Lincoln won Daniel Day Lewis a Best Actor statue last year) who dies (Lincoln). Also, his charismatic range from charming to eventual mental breakdown is entertaining enough to constitute attention. It may not be his best, but as far as roles go, this may be the one that most aligns with Oscar bias. If the film was more successful on a narrative front, he could be a lock. As for now, he is just one of the early 2013's better considerations.

I will admit that maybe I am warmer on The Great Gatsby than most people. However, I feel like the film succeeds as a visual proponent and tells a decent story. It doesn't need to be as long as it does, but for the most part, it is enjoyable. Also, there's plenty of original music in here. I am hoping that something gets in the race, though I am down to either Jack White's "Love Is Blindness" or Lana Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful." However, based on unintentional bias, the song needs to impact a scene. "Young and Beautiful" almost fits too nicely and unless I am mistaken and it is on another thing, it could qualify as a Best Original Song. Of course, in general, people have disowned interest in Lana Del Rey, even though she clearly is one of the better music choices in the film. She would be my money if the movie got any chance at the category.

It is fun and fancy free, but The Great Gatsby won't play too largely at the Oscars. It will probably ride more on the coattails of Luhrmann's prior success and that it is Fitzgerald's gift to the world. Even if we're still having issues finding the first truly locked Best Picture nominee, we're starting to flesh out the lesser categories here. Best Costume Design must feature this film, or else we're up for a really strong rest of the year. Still, I hope that the glitz and glamour don't keep the voters from realizing where the film succeeds.

Will the film get a Best Costume Design? Is Leonardo DiCaprio due for a nomination? Which song could make Best Original Song? Does anyone else deserve an acting nomination? 

1 comment:

  1. I loved this movie and would love to see Leonardo DiCaprio earn a Best Actor nod. Costume, of course, as you've said. I find it interesting that so many critics complained about the score. I am an older movie goer, but I thought the pumping rhythm did the movie well. Still, there was nothing like Gershwin's excerpt from Rhapsody in Blue to herald our introduction to Gatsby. Wow!