Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby - 2013

"The Great Gatsby" - 2013
Dir. by Baz Luhrmann - 2 hrs. 23 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

Purists are the worst, most boring kind of people.  If the entire point of a project is to faithfully recreate something in a different format, what's the point, to be a human Xerox machine?  I'm not the least bit interested in period fetishism; I'd much rather see a new take on something that keeps the core of the story true than see someone who's obsessed with making sure that each character was wearing the right socks.  Baz Lurhmann's take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is the best of both worlds, treating the time period as an exotic locale, and using new technology and music to keep from falling into irrelevant reverence of it.  The result is a spectacle, in the best sense of the word.

Usually, this is where I would do a quick plot recap, but there's a very good chance that anyone interested in this movie has already read the book (or has just watched the movie), so let's skip all that this time.

I wasn't joking about what I said about purists, they're the scourge of any creative field.  The idea that any creative work was perfected at a certain point, and the slavish recreation of the previous ideals is a retreat from one's own time, and the refusal to add anything new to one's field is selfish and a waste of time.  The fact that this is a Baz Luhrmann film is significant; it's a upfront statement that you shouldn't hold on to your preconceived ideas about what a Gatsby film should look like.  There are scenes that look like they could have been taken from "300" or "The Spirit" (the driving scenes that show both the big city and the slums that Gatsby and company have to drive through to get to the city).  For one thing, the party scenes are lush, way beyond what most people could imagine they would look like.  They're meant to represent opulence, and the absolute hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, and they actually deliver on that front.  Jay Gatsby himself (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is some kind of mythical figure, and rather than just leaving it at that, his introduction is bizarre and hilarious and overblown.  While Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is lost in reverence at Gatsby's smile and aura, there are literally fireworks going off in the night sky behind Gatsby.  That might be the make-or-break moment in the movie; either you're going to chuckle and then settle in for the ride, or it's just going to be too much for you, and you'll regard the entire thing as silly.

To some degree, the entire story is about that very balance.  It's easy to regard the entire thing as silly, or to think the super-rich, super-handsome Gatsby is just some frivolous orphaned playboy who's superpower is throwing awesome parties (instead of dressing up like a bat and beating the crap out of criminals).  It's easy to think that this is a story about the idle rich, and to dismiss any problems they might have as meaningless when compared to their privilege.  That's an easy, lame, and intellectually lazy approach to take.  "The Great Gatsby" is a love story at it's core, everything else is window-dressing.  It's beautiful, rich window-dressing, but getting caught up in that aspect of the story is admitting that you weren't paying attention, and that you didn't understand the story.  The characters in "Gatsby" who regard him as frivolous and nothing more than a gadfly reveal themselves to be the ones who don't know anything about what's actually going on.  And that's most of everyone; Nick is the only character who seems to have a complete picture of his surroundings, and he's also portrayed as the only one who didn't really have any ulterior motives.  He's living constantly, and contentedly in the shadow of unthinkable wealth, and seems okay with working for his share even when opportunities for short-cuts arise.  Literally every other character is constantly angling and scheming, and none of them are ever happy.

"The Great Gatsby" is also a sad story, which is hammered home in the third act.  I found myself unusually emotionally caught up in the downfall of Gatsby, which is even weirder because I've read the book twice previously.  I knew what was coming, which made the irrepressible optimism of Gatsby harder to bear.  I don't mean to imply that the first two-thirds of "Gatsby" is difficult to get through, because it isn't.  But everything comes together in a very intense way, and the intensity is sustained until the story's conclusion. Early in the film, Nick says that hope is what makes Gatsby different (and better) than everyone else, and that's backed up through his actions.  One of the things that makes "Gatsby" a rock-solid story is that the reputations that people have are earned on-screen through action, rather than just leaving it at "Gatsby's reclusive," and then never really showing that or showing what that means.  But even more meaningfully, as everyone around Gatsby changes and reveals themselves to be less than they'd appeared to be, Gatsby's hope and optimism never fades, which is one source of the emotional heaviness of the final act.

It's difficult to watch anything involved with Fitzgerald without considering his own life as part of the picture.  There's an early scene where Nick dismisses talk of his being a writer, saying that he wasn't ever any good at it.  And there's the ultimate conclusion of the movie, that everyone sucks, the girl turned out not to be worth the trouble, and that the only good guy anybody knows has been driven to alcoholism.  It's a pretty bleak summation.  But there's the alternate view, that Gatsby's hope and love for Daisy fueled him to achieve incredible financial success (albeit through shady means), and to transform his life, and put him in the position to bring moments of pleasure and joy to other people.  The ultimate question that each viewer has to answer for themselves is whether it's the destination or the journey that matters more.  Even though everyone ends up in the same place, "The Great Gatsby" is one hell of a ride.

4 / 5 - Theatre

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