Monday, 27 May 2013

Film Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrman and Craig Pearce
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan

Baz Luhrmann’s remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby may just be his most infuriating, and best, work to date. Having said that, his previous films have not impressed this particular reviewer so that may be faint praise.

Stylistically, the film is split into two distinct sections; the flamboyant, in your face, style over substance visuals we expect from Luhrmann and the calmer, dialled down direction once the story begins to take shape. Both aspects of Luhrmann’s directorial decisions have their successes and failures but for very different reasons, and it is the ‘Luhrmann-esque’ visuals which were the most dichotomized in the enjoyment of the film.

The decision to shoot a film set in the 1920s in a thoroughly modern 3D style is a fundamental mistake because it allows a director like Luhrmann to have free reign with CGI created visuals and all sense of time and period are perished as all focus is put on the visuals which add nothing to the storytelling. The scenes where cars are racing down narrow roads and when the characters cross the Brooklyn Bridge look like they should be in a sci-fi film because nothing is believable in this 1920s world of Luhrmannn’s and only serve to distract the audience from what is being said. Moreover, as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) tells his story through voiceover (which we’ll come to later) Luhrmann occasionally chooses to show the words ‘typing’ or floating on the screen for no other reason than yet more excess. These words when written by Fitzgerald (or any words written by any great novelist) do not need to be shown on screen, the beauty is in the poetry of reading them in one’s head, or hearing them spoken aloud, but never a combination of both.

The flip side to Luhrmann’s style which really worked well came in what turned out to be the two standout scenes in the film; scenes which really shouldn’t work with this source material. Both scenes are extended parties where excess is key and excess is something this director flourishes in. A huge party at Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house is shot with such a frantic and sweeping camera and with a booming, modern soundtrack, and with glitter and glamour almost exploding out of the screen that it puts the audience as close to the party as is possible in the language of cinema. The scene also introduces Gatsby in a truly memorable way as fireworks literally go off when his face is first seen, with DiCaprio looking every inch of an iconic character.

The other party scene see Carraway getting drunk for only the second time in his life, and yet again Luhrmann brings an energy and liveliness to the scene which most other directors would struggle to bring. The scene even has a trumpet player superimposed over some frames which both means nothing yet adds a drunken, out of body experience to the scene which, if that is what Luhrmann was going for, the scene is a success until the clumsy, unforgivable CGI zoom out of a CGI New York City. The director just couldn’t help himself, and that seems to become the motif of this film.

The decision to use a modern soundtrack, outside of these party scenes, is a disaster. The single worst moment in the film comes when Gatsby’s car pulls up next to a car full of young black people who are listening to Jay-Z’s "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" which plays for, at most, ten seconds is appalling commercialism to influence soundtrack sales, as is every hip hop track. They stand out for all the wrong reasons and crush the film in its early scenes under the weight of its own need to be different and modern.

Once the love story between Gatsby and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) takes shape, Luhrmann’s film noticeably slows down and the actors are allowed to take centre stage. As good as the actors are here (and no one disappoints), by this point in the running time Luhrmann has set his stall out and created his own take on the classic story and the sudden change in pace is just as jarring as the initial whirlwind start. From here on every scene is heighten dramatics and the actors are giving everything they’ve got to turn this film back into some semblance of The Great Gatsby we know about from reading the novel or seeing previous versions. Moreover, exactly what Luhrmann brings to the film from here on in is not clear, as the dramatic weight is all powered by the performances; the film begins to drag before the two hour mark and despite good performances, and the director’s more subdued style does not hold the attention in the way the source material allows.

Furthermore the screenplay proves problematic. Voiceover narratives and flashback techniques take the audience out of the story and the need to give Carraway a vehicle to tell his story years later while being treated for alcoholism at a sanatorium is a very clumsy framing device for such a well known story.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Although the costumes are exquisite throughout and the production value is high, at 142 minutes the film is simply too long to hold the attention with Luhrmann at the helm. With the shifts in style and tone that the director brings and his desire to make it all things at once, this film is ultimately just too unbalanced to deliver the greatness that Gatsby deserves.

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