It really didn’t need to be in 3-D…
Yeah, I know it says “Book Vampire” up there but I have said that I might review some adaptations in the past (approximately two posts ago, I do believe); frankly, since I drew on the publicity and the pressure behind/on this film within my review of the book (https://bookvampire.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/the-great-gatsby-f-scott-fitzgerald/), I do feel somewhat honour-bound to look at the film itself. And it’s my blog, so I’ll do what I like. So, with that pouting aside and a blanket spoiler alert being put out there, let’s begin shall we?
The plot itself sticks very closely with that of the book, with the plucky young innocent Nick still coming to New York to try and make his fortune on the stock market and still finding his mysterious neighbour Gatsby obsessed with the something across the bay – only to find that it’s Nick’s very own spoilt, beautiful (and married) cousin Daisy. And to say that they have unfinished business is an understatement. Luhrmann adds a framing device into the film, with Nick (played by Tobey Maguire) as a recovering alcoholic in a clinic years after the event and still struggling to come to terms with it all. Usually the point of adding a framing device to a piece of Drama is to intrigue the audience whilst giving them the necessary information they need to navigate the plot to come. Funnily enough, for me, the opening fails somewhat in this respect. This particular section of the script screams “exposition!” Whilst, of course, not everyone will be au fait with 1920’s America (the person I saw it with wasn’t) Nick doesn’t have a psychologically valid reason to be spewing contextual material to a Doctor who lived through the same things just a few years earlier; I think it was meant to underline the jaded aspect of Nick, but it just came across like the plan for a GCSE History essay question with Gatsby thrown in at the end for good measure. Oh and Nick paraphrases that Gordon Gekko quote. Which is really distracting; it’s like Mr Rochester turning to Jane Eyre and saying: “You took the words right out of my mouth, it must have been while you were kissing me.”*
That bit aside, once we get into the story proper it works extremely well and is very tightly-structured. Certain bits were expanded upon and brought up earlier so that they were made less abrupt for the non-Fitzgerald fan in the audience – particular as regards to Gatsby and the extent his interior fantasy logic is explored, making him a far more tragic character than previous adaptations have. As far as I’m concerned, Leonardo di Caprio is the best Gatsby I’ve seen – including Robert Redford – as he manages to balance out the stylised performance that the character puts on, with the inner dreaming naivety and insecurity; we’re drawn in by the first, we stay for the second. Redford gave you the impression that Gatsby was a bit of an idiot who had a crush on the wrong girl and should probably just move on; with di Caprio you are struck by the fact that he isn’t in love with Daisy so much as what she represents (cultural capital and a fairy tale ending) and that he would never be even capable of letting her (and that) go – which makes his blind optimism in the face of her eventual rejection and his own death that much more tragic.
On the subject of performances, I feel honourable mentions need to go to Joel Edgerton for his portrayal of Tom Buchanan – Daisy’s racist, philandering husband. It would have been so easy to play him as a boorish two-dimensional villain, but he is instead presented in a rather more nuanced light as someone who can be alternately superior, cunning, antipathetic and (in one scene) actually sympathetic. Edgerton embodies a disappearing old world sense of entitlement that’s at its most vicious when on the defensive to devastating effect; he completely dominates the hotel scene as he senses the weaker links between Gatsby and Daisy and picks at them. Mercilessly. Considering that Edgerton had the hardest job in creating a character almost from scratch, as all previous screen-Toms have very much been of the “what a bastard!” school of thought, as is the one on page – to a degree, I think he probably deserves the most credit.
The visuals were stunning; but did they really need to be in 3-D? I saw this in 2-D and I’m glad I did. With some of the Speedy Gonzales-esque extreme zooms, and things flying through the air it would have been migraine-inducing. Even the Art Deco concertina effect which bookends the film, which I admit was perfect for 3-D, still looked amazing in 2-D. But, hey. That’s what 2-D screenings are for, right?
Okay, it’s now time to address the soundtrack controversy. I think it works. Mostly. On the positive side, the Lana del Rey and Florence and the Machine Tracks are amazing and fit perfectly – particularly within the context of their uses in the film. Heck, Florence’s track is an extended homage to my favourite moment in the book which other people rarely notice. (I am going to ignore the fact that the actress lip-syncing in the film couldn’t possibly sing it reclined at that angle). I don’t normally like Lana del Rey as an artist; I liked “Video Games”, and then I realised she was an emotionless performer. Funnily enough, both “Video Games” and “Young and Beautiful” work for precisely that reason. When shooting the closing shots of Queen Christina, the director ordered Greta Garbo to keep her face as blank as possible; he wanted the audience to see their own emotions reflected in her. And that is why “Young and Beautiful” works so well as a recurring haunting musical motif, such poignant lyrics with such a blank performance draw the audience into the unwinding tragedy onscreen as they interpret it as they choose. On the downside, the rap side doesn’t work as well for me. It’s generally more distracting and made even more so by the sampling of tracks from the era like “Let’s Misbehave”, because you wonder why the hell they didn’t just go with that.
Overall, it’s an ambitious film which works really well over all as a disciplined, faithful adaptation of a notoriously hard to adapt book. The visuals and performances are stunning, with only the odd scripting or logic-clunk – when it fails it isn’t for lack of trying. I think it’s the best version yet, and certainly the only one to produce both magnificently frenetic party scenes with treating the characters as engaging, motivated entities and not as just shadow-puppets. It depends on whether you see ambition as a virtue or a flaw, but I’ll take over some anaemic effort any day.
*You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth is a track by the God of Rocking Out, Meat Loaf – in case you’ve been living in a musical wasteland. This is the chorus and for the record it would make complete sense if he did. If it weren’t for the fact that Mr R is a very… Speech-happy lover.