Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

F. Scott Fitzgerald is in my opinion the greatest American author of all-time  and The Great Gatsby is the work for which he is most recognized.  While I would argue that it is not nearly his best work, there is no denying that it is one of the truly seminal pieces of literature of the twentieth century.  And while Robert Redford’s cinematic portrayal of Gatsby in 1974 is by no means perfect, it is in many ways the enduring visual representation of the character.  Thus, with all these things consider, director Baz Luhrmann’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s endeavor to bring the novel to the big screen in a way that resonates with movie goers today, had to be viewed as nothing less than an incredibly challenging undertaking.  And much to my chagrin, it seems the duo bit off more than they could chew.

For those of you who didn’t pay attention during high school English class, the plot of the film follows Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he navigates the social circles of New York City in the 1920’s.  Through his eyes we see the story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an eccentric man of great wealth, who has established an extravagant lifestyle for the purpose of  winning back the love of his life Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).  Unfortunately for Gatsby, she is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a man who represents the physical embodiment  of the excess and soullessness that permeates the narrative.

On paper there was so much to be excited about in regards to this movie.  Beyond the fact that it's based on Fitzgerald’s novel, it was hard not to formulate grand expectations for movie that features a cast loaded with names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, and Isla Fisher.  It is without a doubt a dynamite ensemble from top to bottom; one that screams Academy Awards season.  That, coupled with a director in Baz Luhrmann who has such a distinct visual flair, really had me convinced that this version of The Great Gatsby would be an absolute hit.  And then it wasn’t.

I think for me this movie fails on two levels.  The first has to do with Baz Luhrmann’s directorial choices.  On the surface his cinematic panache makes a ton of sense given the time in which the movie is set, but what his style over substance approach fails to capture is both the banality that underlies the excess and the quiet sense of desperation that afflicts the protagonists.  Instead we get just the big parties, fancy cars, lavish shapes and colors.  Without that deep sense of disconnect to balance those sights and sounds, the film start to play like just a series of loud noises and big sets.  And while I give him kudos for taking his usual scoring risk, nothing about Jay-Z’s music in this film works on any level.

My second issue with this film is with the casting, which is such a huge disappointment because the project is littered with a ton of talent.  The problem with the casting is the disconnect between the talent and their respective roles.  One such example is Joel Edgerton, an actor who has in the past repeatedly shown himself to be very talented.  Yet, in this film he looks and feels completely miscast as Tom Buchanan, because for all his acting acumen it is not within his range to to fully capture the requisite combination of privileged entitlement and moral corruption. 

Another example of casting gone awry is in the case of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, though this is less an example of miscasting and more that Maguire is just not much of an actor.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is one of the more overrated talents in the business.  His performance in this film is a perfect example of why I feel this way.  What he does onscreen is not what one would call acting, nor is it a case of him playing a different versions of himself (a la Brad Pitt).  Tobey Maguire just shows up and  acts like himself – no matter the role.  In fact, if you were to close your eyes and listen to him speak generic lines from each of his roles, you would be hard-pressed to figure out the right movie.  That he serves as the narrator of the film and the person with the most screen time should serve as an indicator as to just how much of a miss this movie is.

In regards to the man given top billing, Leonardo DiCaprio is surprisingly uneven in his portrayal of the complex Jay Gatsby.  There are times when he is spot on with the role and other moments where things seem to drift awry.  He does share strong chemistry with Carey Mulligan and that helps to cover up a lot of the film’s blemishes, but like the rest of the movie, his performance seems overly focused on the visuals as opposed to the nuances.  Mulligan for her part does a nice job as Daisy Buchanan.  Of all the performances in the film, hers is the one that gives the plot exactly what it needs.

As for the rest of the cast, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke are both good in very small doses but are in no position to dramatically upgrade the quality of the film.  Ditto for Elizabeth Debicki whose portrayal of Jordan Baker in many ways embodies the decaying soullessness that defines the social scene in East Egg.  Collectively the supporting players do a sound job manning the periphery of the plot, but unfortunately, too much of the film is left hanging on Maguire’s very limited acting range.

In considering this film in its totality, it becomes apparent that this movie was doomed before a single image was captured on film.  Poor directorial choices and weak casting no doubt laid the foundation for a flawed project.  Sure, there are Luhrmann apologists who are going to blindly love this and those who have not read the book that will approach this with a blank slate and appreciate the tragic romance angle that drives this film.  But to everyone else, it can be seen as nothing less than a disappointment and probably a film that most would be better served to avoid.  If it’s on cable television, I wouldn’t fault anyone for giving it a look, but the truth of the matter is that the best version of this story is the one that resides within the pages of Fitzgerald’s book.

Standout Performance:  Carey Mulligan.  She does just enough to rise above the mediocrity of her co-stars.


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