This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
I generally consider Baz Lurhmann to be a name to run away from, screaming. Not, really, on the grounds that his films are badly made, they’re just not films that I want to see made. And so Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge happily fly by with me paying them no heed and Lurhmann getting none of my money.
This generally happy détente however is shattered by the release of The Great Gatsby, which on the surface seemed more like Luhrmann trolling his detractors than a serious attempt at filmmaking. The surrounding PR speak talked nigh-on exclusively about spectacular glittering parties and costumes and the love story at the heart of it, which to anyone who has read the book will sound like the most vapid, point-missingly superficial reading of Fitzgerald’s work. Thankfully, like all PR speak, it’s not reflecting reality, so the pre-emptive lynch mob really ought to put the pitchforks down.
To be fair, they’d be forgiven for picking them back up again after the first 45 minutes, but it does settle down later on into something that’s far truer to the spirit of the novel than you’d expect. Mainly because the first 45 minutes are a shock-and-awe campaign of mental anachronisms.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The story, for the uninitiated, concerns Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer turned Wall Street broker, moving to Noo Yawk’s (fictional) West Egg, renting a modest house in the shadow of a massive mansion that wouldn’t look out of place on a castle rock.
While back in the city he re-acquaints himself with his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Nick’s old college chum, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a man with more money than he knows what to do with largely garnered from his families inheritance than the sweat of his brow. They reside in similarly massive mansion in the similarly fictional East Egg, the poshest of all the eggs, directly across the Long Island sound from Nick’s neighbours stupefying abode.
Said abode, it turns out, is home to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and while the man himself is rarely seen at them his home is frequently bedecked with the most lavish of parties, where all of New York’s swinging, roaring young things appear to make merry in a borderline revolting display of opulence and extravagance. Nick possesses something of a rarity, an invitation to one of these parties from Gatsby, rather than the everyone else’s self-invitations.
Gatsby takes an interest in Nick, as a friend, sure, but with the soon explained ulterior motive of obtaining a meeting with Daisy – an old lover. From here, if you’ve not read the book you could probably see where this is going, but what’s made Fitzgerald’s book so enduring that it’s not about love, but obsession – with women, with status, with money, with class, and how it drives and influences the characters.
It’s a character piece, at the end of the day, with some very complex characters with interesting backstories that are teased out over the course of the film, and that’s still very much the meat and potatoes of this film, helped by DiCaprio’s strong performance, although you will rapidly tire of him calling people “sport”.
As scions of monied families Mulligan’s Daisy and Edgerton’s Tom are suitably odious, privileged and charming in various combinations, changing as their situations change through Gatsby’s catalysing neuve riche personality.
Maguire’s Carraway is an odd fruit, initially more of a dispassionate observer becoming drawn into the web of games this world’s monied strata play with the lives of others, seemingly on little more than whims, for little more than kicks. Maguire’s the only character, or perhaps performance, it’s difficult to separate the two, that I just couldn’t bring myself to like as much as the story demands I should, which does present a bit of a problem as he’s narrating the movie.
Ah, yes, the movie. The story’s stood enough of the test of time that there’s little point me battering away against it. I remembered not liking the novel all that much, but the more I consider it the more I’m minded to concede I may be wrong on that point, or remembering inaccurately. But as a movie, Baz Lurhmann’s take on it is undeniably odd.
As mentioned, the opening salvos are a disorientating barrage of sound and fury, with a bizarrely anachronistic soundtrack and some CG locations that might be realistic if this was set in Mordor rather than New York. Coupled with the utterly pointless, even more so than usual, use of 3D, in my opinion it’s doing more to drive away with its discordancy than it is to draw people in with it’s glamour offensive.
I can see some logic behind it now, certainly more so having watched it than my earlier near-automatic dismissal of it, but it doesn’t quite work for me.
Which is a shame, because there’s a decent amount of the remainder of the film that I’m quite fond of. Niggles with Maguire aside, there’s strong performances from a strong cast and when it stops deliberately overplaying its hand, it’s still left with stunning locations with elegant period detail that’s visually very impressive.
Ultimately it’s just too idiosyncratic for it’s own good, but it’s probably made me think more about how something like this could or should be handled than anything else of late, so that’s gotstabe worth something, right?