Topic: The Great Gatsby (2013, Baz Luhrmann) review by Rob [SPOILERS]
If you've never read F. Scott Fitzgerald's book, Baz Luhrmann's new adaptation might give you the impression that The Great Gatsby is a comic book and not a modern novel. Luhrmann's use of 3D and saturated colors makes West Egg look like a cheerier Sin City. Ultra-stylized visuals made sense for Sin City, which was rooted in the aesthetics of comics and graphic novels. But hey, we expect overripe visuals in a Baz Luhrmann movie.
Beyond its looks, there are moments in the new Gatsby that verge on Luhrmann self-parody. Does substituting Jay-Z songs for actual jazz-age period music help Luhrman tell the story or explore its themes? (Jay-Z has a knack for shoehorning his music into recent period movies. Buy a ticket to the new Jackie Robinson biopic, and you'll see Robinson taking the field to "Brooklyn We Go Hard"—you know, just like he did back in '47.) I thought the use of pop music in Moulin Rouge! was inspired, but this is an artless effort to sell the soundtrack. Luhrmann apparently wants to make sure that whenever today's youth think of the literary genius that was Francis Scott Fitzgerald, they will think of Fergie. And when Luhrman does use period music, it's often used lazily, as if under protest. At one point, "Rhapsody in Blue" becomes background music for a dialogue scene. Something about that feels immoral.
When he's not forcing us to wolf down his famous overcooked mise en scene, Baz Luhrman is a skilled director of plain-old, no-frills dialogue scenes. Clever staging injects the right kind of tension to the climactic hotel-room scene in which Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Gatsby (Leo Di Caprio) finally confront each other, and ditto the scene in which Gatsby and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) reunite. The quieter scenes in Gatsby's mansion swell with anxiety, with stoic servants always flanking their man, always stationed just outside every door. What secrets do they know, and how much do they hear? This is an uncertainty Fitzgerald's book establishes but doesn't over-emphasize, a slightly ominous shadow that stalks Gatsby everywhere he steps.
But this is Di Caprio’s movie, and, considering the role’s high degree of difficulty, he delivers. While the Gatsby I always saw in my imagination looks and acts more like Tom Hiddleston (who played a somewhat Gatsby-like character in The Deep Blue Sea), Leo’s not far off. At 38, the son-of-a-bitch could pass for 15-20 years younger. A boyish appearance is one of the qualities that makes Gatsby so disarming, and so sad. When Tom confronts Gatsby about his self-mythologizing, DiCaprio’s grimacing and searching eyes are spot-on—he believes his lies are morally superior to Tom’s lies. Gatsby lies for love. The money and mansions are means to that end. Robert Redford didn't sell me on these emotions back in 1974, but Leo more or less does.
Some of the license the film takes with its source material has merit, and some is downright puzzling. The film introduces us to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and quickly establishes that most of his voiceover is not the standard main-character's-P.O.V. narration—of the sort we're perfectly accustomed to accepting in movies—but is actually the text of a (presumably) nonfiction book called The Great Gatsby, which he is writing in a sanitarium. Why? Is it so Nick can be like Ewan MacGregor's character in Moulin Rouge!, whose typewriter magically floats its prose onto the screen? Apparently it is, because when Nick types, his words magically appear on the screen, karaoke-style, as his voiceover reads them for us. Because what kind of idiot would expend energy reading something?