May 28, 2013
The Great Gatsby
The casting isn't half bad: At thirty-eight, Leonardo DiCaprio finally looks thirty, and he's good as Jay Gatsby: he's got that glint in his eye which betrays the secrets haunting his character's labyrinthine mind, and that charming grin that locks the viewer into place as a willing participant, going along for the carnival ride concocted by Jay Gatsby, a sort of social magician if you will. He's the ultimate American: the man with enough charm and brains to re-invent himself from the poor farm-boy to the rich, enigmatic darling of the New York social scene. All the time I kept thinking that this is what might have happened to Pip, the orphan from Great Expectations, if morality hadn't gotten in the way at the end. No, DiCaprio finally seems well-cast here, as he was in Django Unchained, playing a part that was so much fun and so much out of the ordinary.
Now that DiCaprio has played so many iconic roles--Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, etc.--I'm hoping he's gotten these Oscar-baiting movies out of his system. Perhaps DiCaprio isn't gunning solely for a golden statue, perhaps these are just the most challenging and interesting roles he's being offered, but up until Django I hadn't been very impressed with him or his movies of late. Everything about his performances seemed predictable and tired. He's not particularly different in Gatsby, but it may be that the role itself finally fits him to a tee, and the allure of Fitzgerald's tragic hero rubs off onto DiCaprio the way it did with his character in Titanic with all the fangirls shrieking over him. He's irresistibly handsome, but also hopelessly idealistic. But with the latter characteristic, the movie ignores something crucial in the novel: Gatsby seems aware--whether it bugs him or not--of Daisy's true nature. Gatsby tells Nick that her voice is "full of money," which suggests a deeper cynicism in him than the movie wants to display.
As the vapid spoiled rich girl Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan is also quite convincing: she's petite enough and pale and unassuming enough to be credible as someone whose thoughtlessness is a worse crime than someone else's genocide. This is ultimately the horrible joke of The Great Gatsby: it's a story that applauds the men's pursuit and domination of the women, who turn out to be so shallow and self-interested that we no longer sympathize with them for being treated like objects. They are objects, and they've learned how to be happy within such conditions. (Now I understand what she meant when a friend once told me she disliked how sexist Fitzgerald's novel was.) Daisy says a woman can only survive if she's a fool, and it's apparent that this is an axiom she's taken to heart: but it's also a cop-out, and it's how she gets away with murder and keeps Gatsby at her beck and call.
And then there's Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway, Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's neighbor, the narrator of the story and the limpid bystander who gets to live vicariously through his friends. He's a blank, impressionable man, rendered impotent by the privilege of his upbringing. Gatsby, the iconic self-made man, stands next to him as a god, and Nick spends the entire novel (and film) giving alms to him.
But Maguire lacks something: he says his lines clumsily at times, and while his goofy gaucheness seems appropriate for the role of Nick, it also makes him seem more pathetic. He's the least interesting character of the bunch, which may be the very reason Fitzgerald made him a narrator: it ultimately gives him more authority, not less, which is some kind of perverse irony, I guess. But the sleepwalking performance doesn't do much for the film, and what's worse, Nick is our intercessor, dumping out and sorting through the exposition like an archivist. We don't have to do any of the work. It feels forced and obvious, and as much as Luhrman wants to bask in the visual splendor of his wanna-be masterpiece, The Great Gatsby makes the fatal mistake of relying too heavily on telling us information rather than showing it.
What is shown are the wild parties with naughtily-dressed dancers and champagne gushing and oozing out of bottles and confetti floating in the air and Chinese lanterns beaming down on the ground from the trees and strung-out Jazz Age loonies dancing until the dawn and passed-out guests being scooped up by the servants in the sobering morning light. This is all sort of impressive, but sort of cheap: much of the production seems to have been designed on the computer (and indeed, they have been pushing this as the latest 3-D experience, which is beyond irritating), so nothing seems real. I suppose one could argue that that's what Luhrman was going for--an unreal world--but it displaces us. We're left with the plot being fed to us via silver spoon. Granted, Luhrman manages to capture that mysterious pull of Fitzgerald's novel to a degree. He just doesn't succeed all the way. This latest incarnation is too full of eye candy to ever focus its grasp on anything more than a lot of sloppy ideas about love and hope. It never gets at the ache of materialism that Fitzgerald really got across in the book. There are glimmers of that, though, and I don't think it's as bad as some critics have said. It's just proof that The Great Gatsby doesn't ever translate totally to film.
With Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, and Jason Clarke. 143 min. ★★