The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros., PG-13)

film great-gatsby_75To watch it is akin to watching a particularly kitschy 2½-hour music video that vaguely tells the tale of Gatsby.

 

 

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While I honestly think director Baz Luhrmann (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) is one of modern cinema’s greatest schlockmeisters—ruiner of all things good, reliable maker of shitty movies, etc.—I do have to admit that he’s an original. A lot of people really like his style, and he has influenced countless modern filmmakers who are even less talented than him, since they have to rip off his style rather than coming up with their own. Also, I have to give him credit for 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, the only film of his I can stomach. So when it was announced that he was adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby I was rather worried, as that’s a novel I’m partial to, and I don’t trust Luhrmann not to make a mockery of it. When the cast started being assembled, though, my hopes went up: Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan? I’m suddenly interested. As the release date approached, I grew more and more hopeful that it would pull a Perks of Being a Wallflower and confound my expectations by actually turning out to be a good movie.

While Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is not a good film, I did find it watchable. As one would expect from Luhrmann, there are a ton of liberties taken with the source material; I’m not just talking about him sticking Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey on the soundtrack, which mostly works just fine, but more with the needless modernization of it all. Luhrmann approaches it like a period piece from the outset (which it sort of is, given how deeply entrenched in the Jazz Age the story is, regardless that that was actually when it was written), and yet he treats it like a period piece that he personally modernized, like what he did with Romeo + Juliet. To watch it is akin to watching a particularly kitschy 2½-hour music video that vaguely tells the tale of Gatsby.

I’m writing this review assuming that most readers will have already read the book The Great Gatsby, as it’s on as many high school and college syllabi these days as To Kill a Mockingbird. And assuming you have read it, you should know how quick it is to read: The damned novel is 135 pages, and you can probably read it in about the same amount of time it takes to watch this movie. So by all means, if you haven’t read it, read the book and don’t watch this clusterfuck.

To refresh your memory, though, if you haven’t read the novel in many years (or ever): The Great Gatsby is told by Nick Carraway (played in the film by Tobey Maguire, who one of my sister’s friends recently described as “always looking like someone just touched his penis for the first time,” which description I can’t top), the neighbor to the titular Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio). Gatsby is a mysterious figure who is young and handsome, lives in a giant mansion essentially all alone, and throws legendary parties basically every night. As Nick comes to find out, one of the only true human connections Gatsby has ever made was with his (Nick’s) cousin Daisy (Mulligan), with whom he was in love five years prior before leaving to fight in the war. Gatsby convinces Nick to set up a clandestine meeting with Daisy, as he is still hopelessly in love with her, and while Nick does so, he has some reservations about it given the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s past and the fact that, in the interim five years, Daisy has married a rich dickhead named Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

While I’ve never been a fan of Luhrmann’s directorial style, as established above, I do have to give him credit for being able to keep a long movie from feeling long—I was never bored or antsy to leave during The Great Gatsby (or Moulin Rouge!, for that matter). I am wary that this film will keep people who haven’t read the book from ever reading it, especially younger members of the population. Those required to read the book for school might think they can get away with just watching the movie instead (and they’re in for a nasty surprise when they discover that Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce took some serious—and seriously dopey—liberties with the source material), and even those who just go to see it for fun without having been required to read the novel might well think that they wouldn’t like the novel, based on this mess. And that points to the film’s greatest fault: not Luhrmann’s direction, as I expected, but the screenplay, which, in addition to the completely idiotic changes to the original story, has a ton of wooden dialogue, and used voiceover as so much of a crutch that I half expect Robert McKee to take a run at Luhrmann with an ice pick the next time they’re in the same room together.

And as I could have guessed before having seen the movie, its saving grace is its cast. DiCaprio has long since proven himself one of our most reliable actors, and any right-minded person who’s gone to the movies in the past four years (since her breakthrough in 2009’s An Education) should be a fan of Mulligan by now. The rest of the cast is good, too, but it’s DiCaprio and Mulligan that most keep our attention. Even they aren’t on their A-game here: DiCaprio’s drawl comes and goes, as does Mulligan’s native British accent. Still, they’re eminently watchable actors, and their presence results in a surprisingly watchable bad film. | Pete Timmermann

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