Wait a minute, has it really been since the Oscars that Triangle Movie Talk has hit you with our worth every bit of two cents movie knowledge? Come on, man. Sure, after an incredible year for movies in 2012, not much of note has been on screen in ’13, but where is our philosophical breakdown of Pain and Gain? Well, sorry we’ve been away. I could say we’ve been on some sort of several month spiritual pilgrimage to cleanse ourselves at the feet of the Dalai Lama but, honestly, we’ve just been too busy listening to the new Daft Punk record.
Which brings us to Gatsby. Let’s first get it out of the way. This movie is certainly worth a trip down to your local Hollywood Video for a 3 night rental. DiCaprio alone is worth the price of admission and there’s enough Baz Luhrmann-y stuff to carry you through. But just how much you like it versus how disappointed you are by it may correspond directly with how much of a glass half full versus glass half empty person you are. Or what kind of day or week you had the day or week you watch it.
All the elements are there, but I’m not really sure they’re there enough. I mean, come on, it’s The Great Gatsby, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s Baz Luhrmann. It’s Leo!!! It’s the adorable Carey Mulligan, and even has the sad sack-y Tobey Maguire being all sad sack-y. The party scenes are great, but in the words of Emeril Lagasse (who probably should have been cast as Gatsby’s personal chef), Luhrmann should have taken things up another notch. There’s great modern music standing in for the jazz of the 1920s, all the actors are resplendent in period costumes, the colors and the sounds are saturating and create a world in that way Baz Luhrmann creates worlds. And, in moments, it all works. At other times, it all feels very small and the story unexplored.
It’s been a while since I actually read Gatsby. I think it was actually when I was in high school. In dog years, it wasn’t too long ago, but in actual years it’s a pretty long time. What I remember about the book is that it seemed awfully shallow and left the deeper meaning of things largely unexplored. A book like Gatsby cries out for a director who will dig into it, put his or her own stamp on it, and make it a story that matches the world we live in today. And if you want to dispense with all that boring philosophizing, then schmaltz it up, sex it up and let’s go for it. Luhrmann is not necessarily known for his deep grasp of story exposition, so he may not be the go to guy for a thoughtful reading of the book. But he’s certainly the guy to bring you Gatsby in a bubble bath with a bunch of showgirls, singing Al Jolson tunes and eating giant turkey legs while commanding his liquor running business and still throwing the charm onto Daisy. Instead, the movie lurches back and forth, never getting focused enough to decide what it wants to be. It looks good at times, sounds good at others, is a good love story at times, and a decent pot boiler at others, but it never quite gels into a comprehensive whole.
One of the ironies of Baz’s version of Gatsby is that the signature scene, the one that pretty much sums it all up, is not a typical over the top Baz Lurhmann set piece with blast away visuals and some thumping soundtrack. It’s actually a simple, single shot closeup of Leo as Gatsby, the first time the audience and Tobey Maguire actually get a glimpse of Gatsby. Gatsby is, of course, all at once a charismatic, charming, bon vivant, snake oil selling crook. And it’s all there in the shot of Leo’s glowing, yet reptilian smile. He’s all at once beatific, alluring, slimy and scary. All in one shot. Even when the movie strays, that one moment sticks in your mind, and you know this Gatsby is not the in control operator he pretends to be. It’s a great performance by Leo. It makes you think the 1970s version of Gatsby would have been better served casting Warren Beatty to the strains of “You’re So Vain” instead of the boy next door Robert Redford.
The other thing that really sums up the hit or miss nature of this Gatsby are the performances. As mentioned, Leo uses his charisma perfectly in the title role. And the supporting cast, taken individually, is all fine. The problem is that they sometimes seem to be performing in their own private version of the film. So, while Joel Edgerton plays Tom Buchanan with a nice combination of simmering misogyny and a slightly over the top 1920s affectation; Tobey Maguire plays Nick as the wide eyed boy in the city becoming more and more jaded; and Carey Mulligan does her best with the thankless role of a helpless, confused Daisy, they don’t quiet mesh as an ensemble. Plus, DiCaprio and Mulligan are completely convincing as star crossed lovers, but it never feels remotely dangerous. It just feels like a couple of clueless, stunted people not being able to figure out how to act like adults.
Not completely sure how to sum this one up. I sort of enjoyed Edgerton’s mugging, Leo’s posing and strutting, and the party scenes when they worked. But I wanted more. Part of the point of Gatsby is that more and more doesn’t always add up to more and more. But in the movies, sometimes pouring it on is what you want to do. Of all people, I would have expected Baz Lurhmann to really juice it up. It just never quite gets there.