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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Great Gatsby (2013)

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Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

I had some trepidations about pressing "play" on Baz Lurhmann's 2013 version of The Great Gatsby, not just because of my less than stellar history with Netflix's recommendations, but also because "The Great Gatsby" is one of my favorite books so I'm wary of watching any adaptation of it. Much to my surprise, because of that and because I'm not a huge Lurhmann fan in general, I actually didn't dislike his telling of Gatsby. It has some weaknesses, to be sure, and I certainly didn't love it, but generally speaking I did like it even if it plays like the story as viewed through a funhouse mirror, and even though I found its conception of one of its major characters all wrong.

As narrated after the fact by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), The Great Gatsby is the story of the mysterious, nearly mythological, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ringleader of a lavish circus that takes place every weekend in the community of West Egg on Long Island. Nick is the neighbor of Gatsby and the cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the bay in East Egg with her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), a boorish man whose wealth and old money prestige allows him to behave badly without consequence. Arriving in West Egg in the summer of 1922, Nick finds Daisy and her friend, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), elegantly idling away the summer hours in Daisy and Tom's massive home, which is filled with tension as a result of Daisy's knowledge of Tom's ongoing affair with a woman in the city. Nick meets the other woman, a mechanic's wife named Myrtle (Isla Fisher), and later meets Gatsby himself after receiving an invitation to one of his parties - the only actual invitation that has ever been issued, as the throngs of people who show up weekend after weekend come without formal invitation. Gatsby befriends Nick, who learns that five years earlier, before Daisy met and married Tom and just before Gatsby was shipped out to fight in World War I, Gatsby and Daisy had a brief love affair, which Gatsby is desperate to rekindle. After Nick secretly arranges a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, Gatsby gets his wish - or, at least, he thinks he does.

Gatsby and Daisy begin an affair, but Gatsby isn't satisfied merely to be with Daisy, he can only be satisfied by finding a way to obliterate the events of the five years during which they've been separated so that he and Daisy can pick up where they previously left off. As Tom becomes increasingly aware of the fact of his wife's affair and increasingly determined to chip away at the facade of legend and wild tales that surround Gatsby's persona, Gatsby begins to demand that Daisy not only leave Tom, but do so by telling him that she never loved him at all. What Nick can see, but Gatsby cannot, is that what he's pursuing is not just elusive but impossible because he's not really chasing a person, but an ideal of perfection that ceased to exist five years earlier and in the moment that he and Daisy consummated their relationship. It's the idea that Gatsby loves, the optimism that can be present only when something exists in the imagination and before it is exposed to the messiness of reality, and though neither Gatsby nor anyone else may realize it, he has already reached his tragic end long before the actual tragedy that closes out the story.

I have mixed feelings about The Great Gatsby, and I'll start with what I didn't like. The novel is about rich people, their excesses, and the hedonism of the era, but it's also about how empty those excesses are, which I'm not quite sure this film gets. It revels in the excesses as it depicts a garish vision of parties around every corner where anything goes and the participants throw themselves into it with abandon. The film wraps itself in the story's excess not to tell a cautionary tale, but for the sake of excess and to give its tragic tale an underlying sense of fun. In terms of its depiction of the characters themselves, I can't get behind the way that Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce waste the character of Jordan, who is so sharp and vital in the novel but barely even registers here, in order to characterize Nick as a wide-eyed eunuch seemingly as infatuated by Gatsby as Gatsby is by Daisy. Of all the issues that I had with the film, it's the depiction of Nick that bothered me the most, not just because Maguire's performance renders him awfully bland, but also because I think it displaces the focus of the narrative, making Luhrmann's Gatsby the story of Nick's lost love.

That said, there are also things that I quite liked about Luhrmann's version. For example, I think that DiCaprio effectively captures what a fucking weirdo Jay Gatsby is, while Mulligan and Edgerton capture the sense of unchecked privilege and entitlement of their old money characters. I'm also fascinated by Luhrmann's use of contemporary music, particularly hip hop, and black extras throughout the film. Most period films are lily-white in their casting, and though there are no black actors with speaking roles in The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann is constantly bringing black extras into the picture, shifting them into the center of the frame from the very periphery of the story. I'm not entirely sure what Luhrmann is trying to say with this (and I think that he must be trying to say something, as it seems too deliberate and too frequent to be meaningless), whether he's equating contemporary black celebrities with the self-made, social climbing Jay Gatsby, or equating current pop culture with the culture of decadence of the Jazz Age, or quietly pointing out that without the influence of black culture there would have been no "Jazz" in the Jazz Age, or whether he's going for some combination thereof, but I can't say that it's not interesting. So, all in all, while Luhrmann's Gatsby isn't really my Gatsby, and the film doesn't hold a candle to the novel, it's an interesting film that I enjoyed more often than not.

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