The Great Gatsby *** (out of five)
The new, hugely publicized (and hugely expensive) Great Gatsby has a beautiful dedication to the source novel, and an artificial look: the exhaustive use of computer-generated or supplemented backdrops, the digitally enhanced colors, the extensive post-production manipulation of imagery, and the over-abundance of ADR (automated dialogue replacement, or “looping”, or having the actors re-say their lines in a studio months after their scenes were shot) give the enterprise, at times, the feel of a cartoon, and, when such levels of digital manipulation are combined with the flavour of music the film embraces (which I love), it (sensually) resembles no recent film more closely than Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. This is not the insult it may sound like: there is no doubt that Snyder has seen Moulin Rouge, the previous film of Baz Luhrmann’s that The Great Gatsby most resembles, and I reckon Snyder is hugely influenced by Lurhmann’s style. The concept of Lurhmann being in turn influenced by Snyder seems to fit both of their profiles as the pre-eminent post-modern filmmakers who are completely embraced by, and only work within, the Hollywood system at the very heights of the budget game.
The first five minutes are so dunderheaded, so obsessed with 3D effect, rapid editing, over-use of voice-over narration, and Tobey Maguire acting wide-eyed that I became very, very worried, and, indeed, the first hour is ludicrous and uninvolving, composed of a series of parties that are obsessed with 3D effect, rapid editing, Tobey Maguire acting wide-eyed and iOta, given so many “swoop-ins” as he does a quick jazz-hands shimmy-shake in the middle of a dance-floor pool that you think he’s going to get to have a real character arc (he does not).
What’s interesting is that the second hour and a bit of this hundred and forty-two minute film becomes involving and engaging. The absurdly-paced cutting slows down to dramatic, rather than bombastic, levels; the actors are allowed to act (including Tobey Maguire being allowed to drop his eyes down to normal, narrower levels); and, as the source novel dictates, the parties stop, and with them, the excess.
Well, not quite. The race into town looks like it’s out of The Phantom Menace and the servants of both houses are still choreographed – in movement and acting style – to resemble robots in a Busby Berkeley flick (all dancing, no thinking!) But the novel’s most dramatic scenes, starting with the scene at the Plaza Hotel and continuing through you-know-what-all-else, are exceptionally well done, and achieve a dramatic power that really sucks you in.
This is an interpretation of Gatsby (minor spoiler alert) that revels in the idea of Gatsby and Daisy as two psychopaths (or at least social sociopaths), lovers whose disregard for others, as they pursue their own twisted desires, is bonkers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan get this aspect of their personalities across well, particularly DiCaprio, who is completely unafraid here to play an extremely unhinged and unlikeable man (and for her part, Mulligan plays Daisy as someone you definitely don’t want to be obsessed with). What’s never clear, in the slightest, is why these two are obsessed with each other – but perhaps that’s the nature of obsession.
After the hardest first hour, Maguire does his best with the second, and makes Nick Carraway at least somewhat acceptable as a lead character. But the film’s standout performance without a doubt is that of Joel Edgerton, who, let’s face it, gets the best material, both in book and film, as Daisy’s husband Tom. Combustible, despicable / noble and perhaps the closest to believable in this universe of bygone weirdos, Edgerton also seems best to understand how to act for Luhrmann’s mise-en-scene: he’s Bluto to DiCaprio’s insane Popeye, but in his hands, Bluto knows he’s in a cartoon.
In the end, is the film entertaining? Bizarrely, that’s the hardest question. It isn’t, and then it is, despite the fact that it’s structured the opposite way (to be ludicrously entertaining, then dramatically involving, which in the world of this film’s grammar kind of means “boring”). The best scene in the film, which was also the best scene in the book, and the best scene in Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical World-Wide smash Gatz, is the Plaza Hotel scene. Some stuff is so good, even when you go all bells and whistles around it, if you play the main melody right, the rest, she just falls into place.