Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Produced by: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay by: Baz Luhrmann
Based on: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
Music by: Craig Armstrong
Cinematography by: Simon Duggan
Editing by: Matt Villa
Studio(s): Village Roadshow Pictures
Red Wagon Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s): May 10, 2013 (United States)
May 16, 2013 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 143 minutes
Country(s): United States
Production budget: $105 million
Box-office revenue: $301, 298, 103
Aloha there, my pretties! I say aloha because for a change the weather is absolutely fantastic over here. For the past week or so (with the occasional flash-flood), we in The North here have had clear skies, twenty-degree heat (centigrade for those interested) and I'm starting to work up a sweat just lying in bed! Anywho, much as I'm basking in the rays of the sun (I almost forgot what they felt like), I've been seeing a film or two, so after this one, expect a review for Beware Of Mr. Baker, the Jay Bulger documentary about drummer Ginger Baker. As ever, for all the latest blah blah blah, keep your eyes posted!
I'll just have to say from the outset before I get properly started that today's film is a rather unique case. Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is adapted from the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name, a book which is (quite rightly) considered among the greatest of 20th-Century literary classics. Fitzgerald's work has been adapted to the screen before, most notably 1974's The Great Gatsby, featuring Robert Redford in the title role, and David Fincher's ambitious but turgid 2008 adaptation of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, but Baz Luhrmann's a different kind of beast altogether. The central story, following Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in reminiscing his friendship with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his unwittingly becoming the witness to numerous secrets and lies involving Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan), sticks very much to the original Fitzgerald source, but stylistically Luhrmann takes a different route altogether. So much so, in fact, that it defies the usual format that I take in reviewing a film. Normally, my third and fourth paragraphs deal with the pros and cons of a given film respectively, but The Great Gatsby is a film of such a strange identity that I'm going to have to break down the wall temporarily in order to truly get across my (oh my) opines. So, the following paragraph will deal with what I see as the 'first part' of the film, up a certain 'turning point,' and the fourth paragraph will look at the 'second part' of the film. Thinking about how I was going to approach this in a review took a bit of time, and I've decided that this format will work best in getting across my views.
Now, I'm just gonna shoot from the hip on this one, because the first part/half of The Great Gatsby is a colossal monstrosity. I know that what Baz Luhrmann is trying to achieve in establishing the outright decadence of the Roaring Twenties, about how despite prohibition being in order, alcohol was arguably easier to access than it was when it was legal, but most of the first part of the film is simply dreadful. Aside from an interesting prologue with Tobey Maguire at the beginning, I found little to no redeeming factors about this section of the film. The cinematography is a big problem, nigh on nausea-inducing. I'm wondering if this is down to the fact that I was watching a 3D film in 2D, but I don't know what they were doing with the frame rate, because I doubt I'm they only one who feels this way. The amount of long zoom and tracking shots are simply unnecessary, and go beyond a stylistic quality, instead infusing it with an illusory sense of gimmickry. Every shot just SCREAMS at me, and even down to the sharpness of the cuts made in the editing suite, I felt like someone was vociferously attacking the negative. The screenplay too is pretty messy. Yes, you can do whatever you want in the process of adaptation, and that Luhrmann's theatrical qualities come across in the final cut, but what they do in these gigantic party scenes adds nothing to the narrative. They could have established the outright decadence, fallacy, the proverbial 'Tears Of A Clown' stuff with about a quarter of the screen time dedicated to these scenes. Also, while I thought highly of the slow reveal of the character of Gatsby, at what point is necessary for every second line of that character to be "... old sport." We already know it's Gatsby and that's his trademark from within a minute or two in his company, don't have DiCaprio jabber on about constantly. It makes the film borderline parodic and undercuts the character if you overtly have gibbering "old sport" as often as the script entails it. The soundtrack/score as well is a screaming honking mess. The original score is by Craig Armstrong, a composer whose work I normally like very much (particularly the subtle minimalism of his contributions to NEDS), but here it is all loudness and has the effect of someone attempting to use the methods of blast fishing, triggering explosives to conjure my brain activity up to it's uncomfortable nth. degree. The soundtrack too, a daring move I must say, is a failed experiment. I have no problem with contemporary urban/hip-hop music being used in this period movie, hey, better to try and fail than to not try at all, but it really doesn't work. Much of the party music ends up coming across as silly, and even the use of George Gershwin fails to fit the mood of the piece. This issue reaches it's nadir with the Emeli Sande cover of Beyonce's Crazy In Love in an atrociously misjudged scene just before Gatsby and Daisy meet again. I know it sounds snobbish and pretentious, but it's use actually conjured a number of laughs from the audience, who were probably just doing so out of not knowing what to do in the midst of such an awkward audio-visual conundrum. I, on the other hand, according to a friend who I saw the film with, continued to sigh and breathe heavily until the scene where Gatsby and Daisy reunite...
... and then, after over an hour of screen time, strangely, it became a movie. (At this point, I've left the review for five-six days, as I'm heading over to Donnington to work at Download Festival and I need my beauty sleep, thank you!) As you might have gathered from what I have mentioned in relation to Tobey Maguire, I was uniformly won over by the film's actors, even when surrounded by the utmost ridiculousness. Maguire plays a great Nick Carraway, whose boyish enthusiasm for the world around him is gradually chipped away. Keeping it in the realm of subtlety, Maguire never goes into melodramatic histrionics to put across the character's arc. Also strong is Carey Mulligan, playing the character of Daisy right down the middle and walking the proverbial tightrope with grace. It's a part that really could have gone either way, with her seeming either too much a moll or an adult waif, but Mulligan does it just right. Once again proving herself a fine screen actress, for all the movie's faults, this remains a memorable performance. Also strong are Jason Clarke (an actor who's gaining my interest more with every role) and Joel Edgerton, whose Tom Buchanan is throughly reprehensible, and Elizabeth Debicki is an impressive Jordan Baker, but some space must be given to Leo DiCaprio's Gatsby. As a physical presence, he fills the shoes of the part very well, even amidst the script's rather overt attempts at self-mythologisation. His part is an example of the second-part tonal shift. He becomes not just a figurehead, but a human being. The whole movie (from a directorial standpoint, Luhrmann begins to have flourishes of brilliance here) improves drastically, and the script almost seems to develop a self-awareness of it's own flaws and the fact that it would be wise to actually make an engaging movie. The cinematography and editing too calms down a bit, and Luhrmann realises that this is a drama and not a Michael Bay film. Even the costumes, which struck me as too bright and forthright, seemed to have their colours muted to an acceptable degree At it's best moment, Luhrmann's Gatsby can be very touching and heart-rending, which does lead me to conclude "Why couldn't the rest of the movie be like this?" I don't think they needed the first half to be as brash as it was to get that point across, for the second half is a genuinely serene and engaging piece of cinema. A bit of restraint did this film the world of good.
However, for all the restraint and genuine qualities of the film's second half (which include a modest, serene script, Luhrmann directing with control, the cinematography and editing working in a manner befitting the mood of the piece, the terrific cast at it's very best), I still find it impossible to get past just how much I detested the first part. The cinematography was overt, too stylistic without any contributing quality to the narrative and genuinely nausea-inducing, as loud visually as the soundtrack was aurally, none of the soundscapes (original score, hip-hop/contemporary jazz soundtrack) fitting in to the narrative. There was an incredible sense of gimmickry, particularly in the party scenes, that was hard to overcome. Even when I did the (admittedly) enjoyable second half of the film, the looming monster that was the first half still prevailed. I'll admit the purposefulness of the direction and that it's meant to be this way, give the devil in Mr Luhrmann his due for trying to do something interesting but it simply didn't work on an overall aesthetic or emotional level. It's a shame, because I did work with this movie, and from a reviewing standpoint it certainly posed a challenge, but ultimately the scales of justice were tipped slightly in favour of the colossal monstrosity against the serene drama. The Hall of Justice has spoken.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 4.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good (now that this conundrum of a review is done!)
P.S. As I said, I'll give the devil in Mr Luhrmann his due for trying.