Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Do We Measure Greatness? On Watching The Great Gatsby

It's a story everyone knows. Boy meets girl, girl rejects boy due to lack of money, boy makes lots of money and comes back looking for the girl who has since married. Even if you haven't read or seen The Great Gatsby, this very basic outline of the story is probably is familiar to you in one form or another in some other book or movie. But chances are you have read The Great Gatsby for in the nearly 100 years since Gatsby's original publication, it's become a staple in nearly every high school curriculum and several college courses as well. A popular movie in the 1970s brought the story to a wide audience as well.

But Hollywood is Hollywood and even if everyone already knows a story, that doesn't stop big movie studios from taking another stab at it. So it really shouldn't be a surprise that Warner Brothers would reboot the story for a 2013 film version of it. But on the plus side, this latest version was helmed by director Baz Luhrman, whose name should be a clue that we'd be getting something completely different this time around. When I saw the previews for this version of The Great Gatsby, the visual look and feel of the movie seemed very appealing and right up my alley, so I knew it would only be a matter of time before I saw it.

Of course, then as usual, time got away from me and I didn't see the movie. But when the movie came up as part of my book group's discussion of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald this week, I decided it was time to finally check it out. After watching the film, these are my thoughts on it.

This latest incarnation of The Great Gatsby is indeed a visual spectacle, from Gatsby's lavish song-and-dance parties full of glitter and glam to the imposing and divergent domiciles of Gatsby and the Buchanans to the shining gleam coming off of racing cars to the bright colors of Long Island and Manhattan set against the stark gritty, gray reality of the ash heaps in between them both. Indeed, this last part hit a surreal level of hyper-reality with Long Island and Manhattan nearly jumping off the screen with their luminosity while the valley of ashes doesn't have a lick of color beyond the ever-present blue eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's billboard looming over everything as 'the eyes of God,'  and even these are faded and muted. (Up close we get a tad bit of color in the ash heaps in the form of Myrtle's all-red ensemble, a visual reminder of how she clearly doesn't fit in here .. and of course a reminder that she's 'the other woman' wearing the scarlet letter, so to speak.)

All of the visual beauty in this movie might make it seem like it's a case of style over substance, yet the movie stays largely true to the original work and, using Nick Carraway as the voice-over narrator throughout the film, makes liberal use of direct lines of text from the book. It clearly hits all the most important symbolism of the book, including the aforementioned billboard as well as the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, which almost comes off the screen with the close-up effects. In fact, it almost gets to the point where it feels like Luhrman is hitting the viewer over the head and saying, 'hey, look at the symbolism already, won't you?' In addition, the story isn't given a Hollywood happy ending but retains its original pessimism; any happiness seen in this plot is quickly fleeting.

Still, something felt a little off in this adaptation, even if I can't quite place my finger on what exactly that is. The first major issue I had was in casting Nick in a role that was more Fitzgerald than Carraway -- the framing device placed Nick in a mental institution of some sort writing away his troubles to get a grip on how he felt about that whole summer of Gatsby. I'm never a fan of when movies try to interject more of the author into a character than the author originally did. (I'm looking at you, 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park, which tried to convert Fanny Price into Jane Austen herself.) Tobey Maguire as Nick seemed all wrong as a casting decision, and his habit of stretching out words and sentences to impossible lengths when narrating very, very quickly got old. I was holding back from shouting 'spit it out already!' at the screen.

The second thing that I found very bizarre was the use of modern-day pop songs alongside the period pieces, set, and costumes. It was one thing in Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, which was a musical and used variations of modern songs as sung by the film's characters to interject some levity to an otherwise very serious and depressing movie as well as to heighten the mood and/or atmosphere of certain scenes. But here, in a film trying to be dramatic, serious, and important while maintaining a decent amount of accuracy to the source material and time period, it just seemed wrong to be hearing Fergie in the background. Perhaps when Jay-Z is a film's producer, it becomes a prerequisite to play his and his wife's songs, regardless of the anachronism it presents; all I know is it seemed all kinds of jarring and took away from the storytelling going on in the film.

Back to the plus sides, with the exception of Maguire, the casting was superb. Everyone fit into their roles like a glove, but I think that Carey Mulligan as Daisy was the stand-out performance. I had never been a fan of the 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby, and Mia Farrow as Daisy had been a large part of that, so I was very pleased to see Mulligan embodying Daisy in such a fantastic way. I also liked that even though it's hard with older source material like this, there were some attempts at diversity done; in particular, there's a very brief moment in a scene when Nick comments on how everything is changing as they speed past a car full of clearly wealthy African-American people with a Caucasian chauffeur. It's not much, but it's a little step in the right direction of more diversely cast movies and TV shows.

Overall, I did enjoy this movie as an entertaining break from the everyday and a new twist on a classic novel. I'm glad to have seen it at last, but it's not a movie I feel like I'd ever need to re-visit, which for me is the true test of a movie's greatness.

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