Ostentatious (Jazz) Era-dition: The Great Gatsby
I have a confession to make: Sometimes, I don’t go into a film with an open mind. I know, I know, it’s like I’m breaking a code of ethics for film buffs or film critics. This happens for a couple of reasons: a) I don’t get out that often, so I have to be deliberately selective of what I see (I only seen 12-20 theatrical releases a year), and I often choose what I think I’m going to enjoy the most, or at least what I’m going to get the most out of; or b) I have had strong reactions from the director’s previous work (or screenwriter or actor, but usually director). Case in point, I went in to The Great Gatsby with as closed of a mind as you could probably get. I was going to “hate watch” it, essentially. I was more than ready to detest whatever Lurhmann had done to bastardize F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text. Again, this sound completely horrible, but, so be it. I was, however, in for a couple surprises. But, I guess the most surprising thing about Gatsby is… I didn’t hate it.
I hate the director. I have a personal vendetta against Baz Lurhmann after William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I have a physical aversion to his “bigger is bigger is better”, “style is absolutely everything” mentality. I have tried to watch the two aforementioned films numerous times and I have only gotten through them twice each (total viewing counts: RJ: 4; MR: 6). With the exception of his fabulous debut, Strictly Ballroom (which had all the right kinds of theatricality); I have found Lurhmann to be the “Michael Bay of pseudo-postmodern mainstream filmmaking”. His ideas look good on paper, sometimes even swell; the re-appropriation of a tragic love story set in Miami gangland while retaining the original text? Cool! The retelling of La Boehme as a musical utilizing contemporary pop music to weave the story? Superb! But, for me, it all crumbles away in execution, most notably in editing and cinematography. Lurhmann’s flare for theatricality manifests itself through his editing and camerawork, where he is more reliant on a hyperkinetic, MTV borne method of rapid cuts, oversaturated colors, and swirling camera movements. I probably would not have as much of an issue of these things actually looked visually palatable, but Lurhmann often goes so overboard that I become physically nauseous watching it. Not only does this style of filmmaking get in the way of storytelling and distract from what is occurring with the characters, it is ostentatious and I cannot tolerate it. In essence, Lurhmann does not know when to say stop. It, thus, makes it seem as if he does not actually understand visual language or the language of film. It seems random and aberrant. But, finally, in several moments of his newest film, his take on Fitzgerald’s high school consecrated novel, he steps back and takes a breath to look at some of the grandeur of what he can produce.
As I am sure that everyone reading this has read The Great Gatsby as some point in their lives, I shall not bother giving any type of summary beyond this: Fitzgerald’s book, through its ambrosial prose and decedent setting, desired to critique the deliciously sinful lifestyle so many people lived and/or chased during the 1920s and did so by creating two of the most fascinating characters in American literature: Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby.
Now, it did not surprise me much at all that the first third of the film was wildly visual and self-satisfied in its anachronistic use of music. So, during that first third, I kind of just rolled my eyes during some moments, but I realized, halfway through, that what I was seeing was not making me ill. This, I think, is growth! Nevertheless, Lurhmann’s attempts at duding up his film with CGI art deco, augmented building and settings, rapid editing, dizzying camera work, and his usual trademarks did everything I expected them to: look flashy and distract from what was going on in the film. When Gatsby takes Nick out for the first time in his car, so many cuts were made that one has to continually mentally re-orientate themselves as to where the car is, thus almost ignoring what Gatsby was saying in his rather expository monologue. Isn’t the point, though, to be as entranced by what Gatsby is saying as Nick is?
Speaking of whom, Lurhmann employs a totally unnecessary framing device for the film’s narrative. We find Nick, morose and austere and a resident at an asylum due to severe anxiety and alcoholism, this after the events of the book/film. His psychiatrist tells him to write about his experiences, since he can’t “talk” about them. And so he does. I cannot recall who said it, but a friend of mine on Twitter said that voice over narration should not merely describe what a character does or has done; good narration gives insight into what just happened. On paper, Nick’s first person narration makes sense; on film, it does not. Even separating one’s self from the book, the narration suffers from textbook “telling, not showing”. Much of the nuance of the story and characters is reduced to Tobey Maguire’s half-baked voice over (he really does sound stoned and/or falling asleep). In this way, it feels, occasionally, like a visual audiobook and not a film. Many things are described in such detail that it robs the opportunity for the actors to embody an element of their character, or for the camera to subtly hint at something visually and dramatically. You here Nick describe everything that is going on, constantly interrupting the story, causing several scenes to become long, drawn out affairs, almost going against what Lurhmann usually does. As workable and exceptional as Gatsby’s third act is, it becomes almost excruciatingly “accurate” with the novel because so much of it has this narration. At least the cast is “good”.
I put that in quotation marks for a reason. I commend the entire cast, with the exception of Tobey Maguire, for some spectacular performances. While not as deeply vapid as I expected, Carey Mulligan’s turn as Daisy Buchanan was lovely, her voice emulating money just as Fitzgerald had written. Tom Edgarton epitomizes the hulking, aggressive nature of Daisy’s husband, Tom, in an almost frightening way. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely divine as Jordan Baker, asserting her presence on the screen with a dose of gossip and a trace of “masculine” strength. Tobey Maguire is, on the other hand, pretty boring and banal, despite his role as Nick Caraway being crucial to the story. Only in a few moments of the film do you get to see the wide-eyed wonderment, naiveté, and childishness of Nick. Too often, though, Maguire sounds bored and kind of ghostly. You could make the argument, though, that because everyone basically overacts their way through the film that they are epitomizing the façade of wealth and class Fitzgerald so strongly tackles and criticizes in the book, but that is one of the primary issues. Because every actor seems to fit the descriptions given by Fitzgerald in the book to a T at times, it feels much like a one note performance through much of it. It seems that they are playing more of an outline of the character than actually making the character their own, bringing it to life, and truly making it memorable. Mulligan can capture that subtle quality about Daisy seemingly with ease, but only momentarily does her heartbreak, vapidity, and vulnerability seem more like the words on the page just transliterated onto the screen. Edgarton may look, talk, and walk like Tom, but rarely does he transcend that character. Nearly everyone seems trapped in a mentality dictated by a high school class where everyone lists out what qualities the characters have, as opposed to glancing at those qualities and then going with their gut feeling to make it something to be remembered.
Nearly everyone except Leonardo DiCaprio. His performance as Jay Gatsby may not be perfect, but only in him do you get both an achingly real quality to what Fitzgerald was writing about as well as a performance that goes past that and dives into Gatsby’s emotions as DiCaprio may see it. His desperate, play acted persona seems believable enough to accept him in the role, but fake enough to know there is something else lurking underneath the tailored suits and polished shoes. The nervousness, anxiety, desperation, ostentation, and corruption (emotion and moral) all ooze from DiCaprio’s pores performance effortlessly. This might be, dare I say it, one of DiCaprio’s most memorable roles. *runs and hides*
With DiCaprio’s success as Gatsby, the film’s second strongest aspect is its second a third act. Perhaps exhausted from the “whirlwind” he took us on so early in the film, Lurhmann actually takes a step back, giving both he and his audience a rest and allowing the film to become almost traditional and by the book. The ostentation of the director never fully disappears, but not only does it become more tolerable, it becomes somewhat pleasant. The distraction of the film’s visual aesthetic takes a back seat to characters doing things that could be filled with meaning; to settings that, while entirely artificial looking, at least make sense; and to a story being told. Not necessarily well, as Lurhmann continues to have very little idea about cinematic language, but “okay”. He does an okay job, when the day is done. There are a couple of truly spectacular scenes in the film, notably when Jordon, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are in the city in a hotel room. In this scene, you can see that Lurhmann may have finally matured in his ability to frame things as a benefit to the story, not just to look good or impressive. The tensions steadily rise, and the room is given dual jobs: claustrophobic prison for Tom and Gatsby, and the rest of the group, and large, kind of expansive arena for the former pair. Close ups detail the rage and the duel like nature of the scene; long shots show it as an ornate cell, reminiscent of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Edgarton and DiCaprio bring their A-game to the scene, and in a moment of pure ferocity out of Gatsby, one is reminded of the pained, pathetic creature lurking somewhere in Gatsby’s soul. If this is what Lurhmann can do, a scene where what the actors are doing is more important than how quickly it can change from shot to shot, then I might have to rescind my vendetta.
The music, though, that is something else. I get why Jay Z is produced the soundtrack. Because he can be called “Jay Gat-Z”! Get it? Okay, I’m sorry. However, Jay Z’s personal life only reflects the most surface value of the text and of Gatsby’s aspirations and chase for the American Dream. He’s a success story, and someone whose big name and often good sonic choices might be eye catching for people interested in the film. It comes as absolutely no surprise that the most anachronistic thing in the film is the music. There are other things, sure, like the digitally rendered locale of the entire film (Film critic David Ehrlich commented that the film is less of “a period piece. more like a semi-colon… piece.”), but the music is the most buzzed about, I would surmise. Because, in what world does one marry Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a track by will.i.am in the same scene? Apparently, in Lurhmann’s world. That said, a good portion of the music used in the film makes sense within its context. Party scenes feature tracks like “Bang Bang” by the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas alumnus, which samples the Charleston and “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, which alludes to a line in the book, and these scenes work. They make sense, and they are occasionally even fun and worthy of a foot tap. Emeli Sande’s take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” is rearranged as a big band, cabaret track and used just prior to Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy, and it’s the haunting sound of Sande’s voice coupled with the whining, futile brass that gives that brief scene its power. Even Lana del Ray’s “young and Beautiful”, which becomes a musical motif throughout the film, echoes hauntingly through Gatsby’s vast mansion and smartly describes the hollowness of Gatsby’s lust for Daisy. But it’s when other tracks are used, like Jay Z’s own “100$ Bill” and even the revamped “Back to Black” performed by Andre 3000 and Beyoncé, that the anachronism doesn’t actually make sense in the film and feels more like a big name throw in. These tracks that don’t quite fit in the movie sound like they belong on a disc of music “inspired by the film”, instead of being used in it. It creates unevenness in the film’s tone, which is ironic considering the director. The biggest disappointment, in my personal opinion, is the use of Gershwin’s opus “Rhapsody in Blue”. While it is always nice to hear it used at all, its use becomes somewhat redundant in the film’s two scenes where you hear it: first, when we finally meet Gatsby, and second, when the gang, so to speak, travel across the Queensboro Bridge. One use of the song would make sense; two makes it redundant, especially because the sections that are used as so close together in regards to the chronology of the track itself. That said, the music as a whole did not bother me. Its attempt to make the issues discussed in the film relevant to a contemporary audience in a very “it’s what’s happening today” is not exactly successful, but at least it doesn’t sound bad.
One of the most surprising disappointments to me, though, was the 3D. For all the justification and defending Lurhmann did for his choice to make the film in 3D, it was not particularly spectacular. Although the film’s titles begin to create a sense of depth by gradually becoming a long, narrow hallway of art deco-like graphic design, much of the 3D was, I suppose, underutilized. There wasn’t so much as “sense of depth and place” as there was the understanding that an actor was either standing in front of another actor or a piece of furniture, or that an actor was standing in front of a blue screen, and, in most cases, both. Besides darkening the hues of Simon Duggan’s cinematography, never does one get the feel of just how excessive this piece of the Roaring Twenties was, or how enormous Gatsby’s mansion is. The wide open spaces don’t make you feel like you’re there, just like you feel like you should be feeling like you’re there. While their intentions are “noble”, Werner Herzog and his Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Wim Wenders and his Pina, Lurhmann might not know how to fine tune the technology enough to make it feel worth sitting through. Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows the extensive space of cave paintings, while Wim Wenders shows both the far-reaching depth into a stage as well as the illusive details of the dancers’ bodies and how they move. Gatsby sometimes uses “fun” effects (ashes, writing on the screen, the Green Light, etc.), but none of it justifies the premium ticket price.
The parties look good. But where the film fails in the biggest sense is there. Lurhmann may show just how excessive and decadent that period may have been, but little attempt is made to make as incisive a criticism of such an era as was made in the book. It all looks nice, but it’s all vapid. The justification for “what did expect other than ‘style over substance’?” is no excuse for the film to actually be that way. It attempts to show that falseness of class and sophistication, but does little to go beyond just showing it. It doesn’t peel away at those layers to reveal the true corruption of the ‘20s.
So, I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t even revile it. I did not feel the sense to cry at how awful it was. It wasn’t a hot mess or a train wreck, but it was still mediocre. Despite being very faithful to the book it’s based upon, The Great Gatsby may represent, as some have said, the film that fails to capture the true essence of the book. I probably would have preferred a less accurate version of the film had it been able to convey the nastiness of the novel better. One wonders to what extent Lurhmann grasped the book’s themes enough to adapt them into a satisfying film. The film’s anachronism didn’t bother me, and even the later parts of the film had me genuinely enthralled, but too much of the film was uneven. What worked, worked well, and what didn’t work really didn’t work. The most captivating aspect was DiCaprio’s performance, but beyond that, we may have to continue beat on against the current, hoping for someone to get Gatsby definitely right for once.