Monday, 27 May 2013

The Rotten Twenties: The Great Gatsby Review

When it was announced that Baz Lurhmann would be directing the latest take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novella, The Great Gatsby, the overwrought 16 year old boy in me – the one so enraptured on reading of Jay Gatsby’s life – was balking. That trailer, complete with swooping camera angles, bombastic set designs and a Jay Z soundtrack, did little to calm him down. Others told me to gain some perspective; this was a Lurhmann show – of course it would be excessive – but maybe in that excess he could bring something new and dynamic to this tale of the rotten, Roaring Twenties. The truth lies somewhere in-between; occasionally astute, but often misjudged in its overt showmanship, The Great Gatsby is a curiously hollow film that succeeds largely in reminding all just how much of an accidental masterpiece Romeo + Juliet was.

Fitzgerald’s story of one man’s obsessive quest to make something of himself in a time of rampant materialism and opulent luxury is largely revered for just how gossamer-like its atmosphere actually is – everything floats on a leaf in the breeze, waiting for that one sharp swoop to send it spinning into the ground. From its opening scene, Lurhmann’s version of events seem to consciously reject such fragility; Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) narration is given context in his placement at a sanatorium for depression and alcoholism, the story’s closing messages already realised in some tangible, quantified form. This worthy moral message hangs over the film throughout, expounded upon time and time again. Meanwhile, when we first meet Daisy Buchanan (Carrie Mulligan) in her role as sportsman and philanderer Tom’s (Joel Edgerton) trophy wife, the silk curtains dancing in the summer breeze become engaged in a hyper-real dance between the woman’s gaily dancing limbs, and any chance of subtlety – moral or aesthetic – is assuredly destroyed. Indeed, by the time we finally meet Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s to the roaring fanfare of Gershwin. 

And yet, sometimes this bluntness really hits home. In the aforementioned scene, it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment of Gatsby’s reveal, so teased throughout the preceding half hour. And Nick’s drunken stumble through Tom and mistress Myrtle’s (Isla Fisher) gaudy house party is charged with a sense of total isolation, being also one of the few moments where the addition of a modern hip hop score really works. Just as often, however, the tones of Lana Del Rey, Jay Z and Beyonce simply come off as cynical in their attempts to gel a period story with modern blockbuster audiences – or as an attempt by Lurhmann to make sense of events for himself. Everything is treated on such a surface level – the deep friendship between Nick and Gatsby is continually told, but never truly shown – that you’re left wondering just how involved Lurhmann was in the actual point of the story.

In fairness, the cast are more than adept in their respective roles. There is to my mind no one better suited to the false grandeur and hubris of Gatsby than DiCaprio, who evidently takes delight in the role. Likewise, Maguire’s Nick, despite what the trailers may suggest, largely works as the film’s moral centre even if this has been twisted in Lurhmann’s depiction. Mulligan’s Daisy perfectly exemplifies that unconscious, childish rejection of responsibility that has left audiences fuming for decades. When these three are allowed to simply exist in the story, and not be pushed and prodded by Lurhmann’s stylisms, the film begins to come into its own. But then the fast cuts and the swooping cameras kick in again, and the poorly dubbed dialogue continues conversations between characters who, for seconds at a time, aren’t actually speaking to one another in their fast cars or immaculate dining tables, and you’re once again emotionally uninvolved. In the hands of another director, everything in this film could have shone. As it stands, it merely glistens gaudily.