News Column

'The Great Gatsby' Doesn't Live Up to Name

May 12, 2013

By Michael Smith

After watching "The Great Gatsby," there are many words to describe what I saw on the screen: splashy, dazzling, color-coated Jazz Age eye-candy. Visually, the film is an art-deco delight and a champagne-soaked party for the optic nerve in 3-D.

But the picture is not as substantive as I would like it to be, or as satisfying. The words, so vital in the reading any Great American Novel, do not come alive on the screen. "Gatsby" isn't great.

It is not a bad film. It is ambitious, and the risk-taking is to be applauded. But the movie is a definitive style-over-substance experience.

The collaboration of literature turned into motion pictures almost always encourages that old argument: "Did the film do justice to the book?" In this case, the book is a masterpiece. When reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's words, it is common to feel as though you are reading greatness.

"The Great Gatsby" appears to have been geared toward a younger audience, and one that exposed themselves only to the CliffsNotes study guide for the book.

Baz Luhrmann has a plan as a filmmaker, and that plan is to turn the work upside down and find new meaning in its source material. His plan worked better with "Romeo + Juliet," with Shakespeare's story modernized into pitting rival business competitors amid gang violence. His masterwork in this style was the "Moulin Rouge!" mix of 1900 Paris with a soundtrack of modern music, ranging from Madonna to Nirvana.

The key element missing from "The Great Gatsby," and so essential to the success of those films, is a sense of pure passion. Despite the anachronistic elements in music and more, the characters of the former two films sell us on their revised tales of doom and redemption.

They make us believe that they are true believers in their high- concept cause, and we are rewarded for using our imagination and joining them on this journey.

In this case, Luhrmann's characters look as if they are mouthing the words without unlocking their meaning: The tale of Jay Gatsby is one of tragedy, disillusionment with an era's values and the brutal realities of elitist class systems.

There is also meant to be a heightened level of romance, but I didn't feel it. There is meant to be irony and humor present, but they prove elusive in a movie that plays out with too much soap- opera melodrama.

The picture has many breathtaking images. For example, Luhrmann's creative team takes on that iconic celestial-blue book jacket and combines it with that book's equally famed advertising billboard (with the bespectacled eyes, watching all ...) for an image that will linger.

The Jay Z-produced soundtrack, including hip-hop and electronica, as well as jazz, actually fits fine in some of the more decadent scenes that make the 1920s look truly roaring, but it never defines why these music styles are essential choices.

A bad base is built with the choice of sad-sack actor Tobey Maguire as the narrator of our story, Nick Carraway, the Midwestern young man come to work on Wall Street in the post-World War I period of prosperity.

As the newest resident of West Egg in the Long Island-set tale in the summer of 1922, he finds a world in which everything seems to be booming. The illegal booze is flowing freely. The skyscrapers are coming closer to the sky.

The parties are outrageous, and none more so than at the mansion next door to Nick's house. Gatsby lives here, though none of the uninvited hundreds of party guests seem to know him.

They know of him, and that this is "the place to be" at this moment in time, for Gatsby's is where the excesses of the rich and famous are on impressive, reckless, debauched display.

These early scenes of youthful exuberance are the ones most in tune with Luhrmann's creation of a shiny veneer over the dense truth of Gatsby's reality. Also working in the film's favor with Luhrmann's change in tone is the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Luhrmann reunites with his Romeo, now aged to a degree that his face is fuller and more weathered and his expressions less impish, creating an unnerving Jay Gatsby as a mystery man who slowly reveals his intentions.

My thought is that DiCaprio would be even more successful if his romantic target - the married Daisy Buchanan - weren't written in such a tone-deaf portrayal. The talented Carey Mulligan is left mostly mooning through a clipped performance short on dialogue that asks her to reveal almost every emotion through her face, which is asking a lot over 142 minutes.

The film doesn't have to follow the book's tone obsessively, but it should at least attempt to capture its spirit by the end. It falls short. Too specific when it should be open to interpretation, and too concerned with style over finding a handle on the great book's themes, "The Great Gatsby" looks lavish - but looks aren't everything.

Michael Smith 918-581-8479

Originally published by MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer.

(c) 2013 Tulsa World. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

Source: Copyright Tulsa World 2013

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