Wednesday, May 15, 2013

DiCaprio Impresses in Baz Luhrmann’s Polarizing “The Great Gatsby”

Baz Luhrmann brings his patented style to The Great Gatsby.
Long ago christened the great American novel, The Great Gatbsy has, to some degree, suffered from such a lofty designation. Perhaps due to high expectations, many have walked away unimpressed by the slight nature of the story and unsold on the big ideas placed upon it, often indicating the acclaim seems a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I get this sentiment. There is so much fervor for the text amongst a great deal of scholars that it has become as much a legendary false idol as Jay Gatsby himself. This has led the uninitiated to roll their eyes, which is a shame, because such a chain reaction ultimately dims the beauty of the story’s moving tragedy and elegant prose.

I mention this, because it colors my thoughts on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a somewhat problematic and bloated adaptation that overcomes its shortcomings by nailing the plight of the titular character, a man whose overreaching claim to Greatness conceals his true value.

Called a “nothing man from nowhere” by his chief romantic rival, Gatsby is a newly rich man of humble beginnings.  His persona, like his wealth and parties, is extravagant and inauthentic, a sham product conjured from imagination and subterfuge. 

However, underneath the hubbub, Gatsby, like the book that bears his name, is far more than nothing. He is a man of immense passion, resolve and hope on a romantic quest to live out a dream scenario with his lost love. The problem, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, lies in the fact that the idealized fairytale stored up in his heart is just another overdone exaggeration, a self-deluding illusion of colossal vitality. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays all of this perfectly. Like the books in Gatsby’s library, he’s real, but with uncut pages. The bravado and posh accent increasingly prove themselves to be affectations, and the actor does an excellent job of cutting thorough the mystery and false confidence to show a sad and desperate man who’s achingly real. 
Leonardo DiCaprio owns the role of Jay Gatsby.
Given DiCaprio’s deft work in Shutter Island and Inception, two movies that saw him playing men with their own falsely idealized romances, perhaps his success here shouldn’t be surprising. Ultimately, he offers up the definitive portrait of literature’s most famous dreamer.
As successful as DiCaprio’s performance is, most of the talk surrounding the movie concerns Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes. When I first heard Luhrmann was hired to tackle this adaptation, I applauded the decision. Although it certainly allowed for the potential of a massive misfire, I thought it could also be a shrewd match of material and director. Given his work on Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann seemed well equipped to handle the roaring 20s excess and even better prepared to tackle the tragic romance. Besides, at the very least, we were going to get something uniquely different from previous attempts to translate the Fitzgerald classic.

Having seen the results of Luhrmann’s effort, I’m very much understanding of what Nick Carraway meant when he said he was “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled.” At times, what appears onscreen is enthralling. The production design, mis-en-scene and costuming are highlights, and, certain moments from the book are adapted unbelievably well, particularly the New York apartment party scene in which Nick ponders the inexhaustible variety of life.

However, there are other moments, particularly during the first half hour, that just don’t work. For instance, Nick’s whole first trip to the Buchannan home is fraught with overcooked style. Although it’s pulled straight from the books, the depiction of the whipping curtains is silly, as is the synchronized movements of the wait staff and the overzealous and disorienting editing of the dinner sequence. 
The shot composition in this film is pretty rad.
And while I think the 3D is solid and am not bothered by the multitude of anachronisms (most notably the hip hop soundtrack), I dislike the framing device that reveals Nick is in a sanitarium telling this story to a psychologist and later writing it as a sort of therapy. These scenes add up to quite a bit of screen time spent on an unnecessary and hollow subplot, time that would’ve been better utilized in other ways (like adequately translating the relationship between Jordan Baker and Nick).
Outside of DiCaprio, the cast, which includes Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Isla Fisher, acquits themselves well enough. Elizabeth Debicki left me with the best impression, but unfortunately her Jordan is totally underutilized in the second half of the film. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton brings the right amount of hulking pompousness to the role of Tom, and he kills it in his confrontation scene with DiCaprio.
 The Great Gatsby is destined to be a polarizing film, but while I have a few issues with it, I’m inclined to throw my support behind it. Like Gatsby himself, the film is sometimes flashy to a distancing degree, but underneath the pomp there’s a substance to it that makes for an entirely immersive experience.B+