Thursday, August 11, 2016

Theory Thursday: "The Great Gatsby" (2013) is Underrated

Scene from The Great Gatsby
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Get Down premieres this Friday.
Theory: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013) is underrated.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Theory Thursday column surrounding the opinion that Paul Greengrass was a bad director. In the piece, I discussed that Baz Luhrmann was an objectively worse director largely thanks to his A.D.D.-riddled editing style and the sometimes lack of substance under the pretty pictures. In fact, he's been the topic of a few Theory Thursdays. Even further back, I discussed how much I hate his breakout film Moulin Rouge!, which was even more frustration. It would seem then that I have almost no good will for a director whose work is generally seen by me as disposable prettiness. In all honesty, it's an opinion that I want to hold, but has been shattered in spots thanks to some recent developments.

This Friday marks the latest Netflix series The Get Down, which focuses on urban music culture and sounds a tad familiar if you watched the one-and-done season of Vinyl. Both seem to be embracing a bygone era where the music industry was seen as saviors and made the underdog king. While it is too early to compare the two - give it some time to be digested - I have to admit that having Luhrmann as creator and part time director isn't nearly as much of a threat as it should be. In fact, I am very curious to see what he has lined up next. You see, it's because I think that his shoddy style works with the right project. The most recent example of this is of course the 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the wealthy, mysterious Jay Gatsby. 

One may be asking themselves why The Great Gatsby stands out in a sea of lavish productions that should argue against me liking it. Am I just too glued to the source material to care? Well, in a sense that's a piece of the bigger puzzle. However, I do honestly think that what Luhrmann brought to the film was the extravagance and the vapid sense of humanity in its characters. Everything was defined by wealth, and you rarely got to see Gatsby in a sympathetic light. Still, he looked good drinking and moping everywhere that he went. New York was beyond gorgeous, even if it had an unnatural sheen on everything with everyone dressed to the nines and making the 1920's seem far more romantic than they probably were. Then again, this is the text of the story. Everything was a lush experience, and being distracted by the sheen is important for the emotional crux that develops in the third act to work.

This is far from the first adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." There's been others, such as the Francis Ford Coppola-penned/Robert Redford starring version from 1974. It's a story that has been dubbed as the "Great American Novel" and has gotten the most ambitious filmmakers of each generation to try their hand at making something substantial. With Luhrmann currently holding the rights, it makes sense that he would do it. Considering that this is also from the director of problematic titles like Romeo + Juliet and Australia, it made sense that it was met with ho hum reviews, especially when considering that DiCaprio has made a trope of playing rich white men. Considering that 2013 also marked the release of the similar character dynamic in The Wolf of Wall Street (of which earned him an Oscar nomination), it's easy for The Great Gatsby to be buried as just another mediocre adaptation.

The thing about adapting a story like "The Great Gatsby" is that if you're going to do it, you better just go all out. Gatsby is a millionaire who throws epic parties after all. You want a film that looks like excess but feels somewhat empty underneath. It's the drive of the story, after all. In typical Luhrmann fashion, this is done in the style over substance factor. The outfits couldn't look more removed from high end fashion magazines. The soundtrack - one of the only anachronistic aspects - featured a compilation of music from Jay-Z that focused on hip-hop and modern pop music to emphasize the energy. Sure, there were covers of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" that fit the tone, but anyone wouldn't mistake Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody" as a 20's hit. To be honest, the soundtrack is one of the weaker links in this film despite being consistent with the jukebox style that Luhrmann always goes for. Still, it's a singular vision that may have a few tweaks, but comes across as an amazing adaptation.

Sure, DiCaprio's Gatsby may not be among the actor's best work, but he delivers the gravitas that in other places would be a decent career stabilizer. He has the charm and focus that is necessary to make a character so conflicted pop off of the screen and win over the audience through P.O.V. character Nick Carraway. He starts innocent before being thrown into a world of excess. As he gets drunk in a room full of beautiful, well dressed people; he sees the city shine. His voice over is actually from therapy sessions that leads him to write the book. Words fly over the screen and it becomes reminiscent of homemade lyrics videos, but with better cursive. It's a vision that has a dreamlike quality, refusing ever to ground itself too long in serious dilemmas for the first two acts. Sure, there are the familiar conflicts that rise, but the party aspect dominates the movie until the "hangover" happens and Gatsby is forced to deal with his foolish ways. The one positive is that it's the most beautiful hangover you've ever seen.

For Luhrmann, it is probably his best film largely because it realizes his potential as a director. He is about the visuals and he clearly has a passion for "The Great Gatsby" to do even the small details justice. True, some things were excised and many other things changed to better fit his vision. However, it created a vision of 1920's culture that's appealing not just on a visual level, but on a cinematic one. Most of the scenes could easily be framed despite probably being made with special effects that create an unnatural sheen. Even then, its two Oscars for design are well deserved. It's a beautiful movie, and one that has unfairly been maligned for reasons related to its intents. It was going for extravagance and it was sometimes "too much." However, it was so wonderfully intoxicating that it made "The Great Gatsby" reach peak cinema in ways that even other films cannot. It is by no means the greatest film ever made. However, it is one of the most alluring in recent years, if not for this amazing Lana Del Rey song "Young and Beautiful."

It could just be that the source material is just a great read and I like the film's ambition. However, I still think it's more than fair to assess that it's underrated. In fact, it's one of the few films over the past few years that fully earns that for me. Even in chunks, it works as a beautiful montage of visuals and sound that play well on TV. The costume designs alone should give this film its own long term legacy. Maybe it has flaws and maybe Luhrmann is still too much of an eccentric to make an entirely accurate version. However, he made a version that more than works. He may have made it a Luhrmann joint, but he did so in a way that took the director's potential to its extent, and then added elegance and reverence that I feel is missing from his other works.

I am worried that The Get Down will not be good, or at least reassure me on why Luhrmann isn't a great director. However, there is one film of his that more than embodies his power and justifies his otherwise rocky career. He may be experimental in ways more interesting on vinyl than on screen, but he sometimes comes out with a moment of genius. The Great Gatsby is a strong example, and it has made me reconsider outright dismissing his work. Maybe he won't ever be this good again. Who knows. I just wish that more people say his 2013 adaptation as the impressive achievement that it was and not the lesser DiCaprio (though that is also true) film of 2013. It may not be perfect, but what good film doesn't take interesting chances like this?

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