Sunday, May 19, 2013

What Do You Think of This Movie, Old Sport? -- Reflections on "The Great Gatsby" (2012)

Everything you need to know about this film is said in this one shot.

“Gatsby? What Gatsby?”

So asks the lovely Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan) at the beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s Bacchanalian spectacle, and while it is one of literature’s most intriguing and oft analyzed questions, in this movie it’s quite a snoozer. For all of Fitzgerald’s intrigue and ambiguity, Luhrmann’s ostentatious literalism does not do the question justice, and as a result The Great Gatsby is a group of beautiful parts trying to find connection to a hollow whole.

At the film’s empty center is Leonardo DiCaprio as the elusive Jay Gatsby, a self-made man of whom many speak and rumor, but few actually know. One of those that know him is Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a Midwestern boy come to the bright lights and big promises of 1920s New York City, eschewing his dreams of being a writer to make his fortune selling bonds on Wall Street. Nick moves into the Long Island section of New York called West Egg next door to Gatsby, whose wild parties thrill the young man, and whose pensive midnight strolls along the dock to reach out for an elusive green light across the bay mystify him. After a remarkably long set up, Gatsby involves Nick in his plans to win back the heart of Nick’s aforementioned cousin, Daisy, for whom Gatsby carries a torch.

For many reasons, Baz Luhrmann is the perfect director for Gatsby. He is wild, untamed, doesn’t seem too concerned with looking at how all the pieces fit before jumping in to put them together. I’ve always enjoyed his crazy, adrenalized style for what it offers in contrast to other films. Yet, Luhrmann’s desire to craft a story has often felt overshadowed by his style. His work on Gatsby is further evidence of this. Individual scenes pop – especially Gatsby’s first appearance, Daisy’s tour of Gatsby’s estate, and the climatic war of words between Gatsby and Daisy’s brutish hubby, Tom (Joel Edgerton) – but the film does not have much narrative flow, getting caught in a quagmire of voice over narration, repetitious party scenes, swooping crane shots, and Gatsby’s drinking-game level use of the term “Old Sport” for every male character in the movie.

The biggest problem is Nick Carraway. The fault does not lie in Tobey Maguire’s performance, which is the standard Tobey Maguire performance – wide-eyed, boyish, bland – but in the way Nick’s character is used. In the novel, he’s an audience surrogate, taking us into this glamorous, seductive, empty world. He’s supposed to be that here, too, but because of the way Luhrmann feels compelled to include Nick in every single scene, Nick almost seems creepy. Hey, there’s Gatsby and Daisy finally making out – and Nick’s watching. At one point, Tom Buchanan even remarks on how much Nick likes to watch, and the explicit shout out to Nick’s voyeurism only serves to separate him from the story in such a way that he almost feels unnecessary. He’s a fly-on-the-wall, alright, but one you wish you could swat. And why Gatsby finds any connection to this kid, beside his obvious relation to Daisy, is beyond me. Is Gatsby merely using him, or is there something else between them – the respect of self-made men, perhaps, or something homo-erotic? Hard to say, and Luhrmann never tries to find out.

One thing the film absolutely seems to understand and excel at is painting the old money world of East Egg and its characters as shallow, selfish, solipsistic people. If this movie had wanted to, I’m sure it could have used the adaptation of the novel to create a satire of Wall Street’s wealthy elite, circa 2000, before the crash of ’08 by showing the parallels between the Buchanan’s and our current society’s rich and powerful. But I think the only thing this movie has on its mind is extolling the virtues of the self-made man.

Gatsby is a bit of a slog, but it is earnest and reverential to the source material. The spectacular visuals, costuming, and production design are remarkable. I just wish the flow and focus of the story had matched.