The 2013 Great Gatsby

Great Gatsby party scene
Watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby last night. The first half was spectacular, grandiose and captivating, if somewhat over the top. Like Busby Berkeley meets The Fifth Element. Extravaganza, spectacle and excess.

The film doesn’t feel like it’s set in New York of the Jazz Age. It’s too shiny, too polished, too mechanical, and not gritty enough.

That’s actually okay, and had director Baz Luhrmann chosen to make Gatsby into a scifi film set not the roaring twenties, but rather some futuristic world where the fashion craze is for 20s’ costume, it could have worked better. It would have accounted for the music, for the sets, for the Dark City- or Fifth Element-like vistas we get of New York.

One of the disconnections in the movie is the music. While updating era music with modern technology and sound works well – the Gershwin is great, and the positive influence of Brian Ferry and his orchestra is felt in much of the soundtrack – the hip hop is jarring. It pulls you out of the setting, releases you from your necessary suspension of belief to fall into the gravity of the reality: this is just a movie and we’re here today, not yesteryear.

The second half of the film seems to drift away from the great spectacle into an overblown period piece drama. Downton Abby without the accents, but also without the gangsters or the street life. Big sets surround little people and little problems. The morality tale F. Scott Fitzgerald wove into the novel seems diminished, while his illusionary, glittering world towers above us.

What started out with such promise just slides into predictability. Maybe that’s because I read the book (albeit many decades ago) and I knew the ending. Maybe it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and one can never watch him without thinking of the film Titanic. Not to mention he doesn’t have a great range of expression.

Like that movie, this one has an inevitable (though metaphorical) iceberg Gatsby has to crash into, bringing about his ruin. And that ruin symbolizes the fall of the American dream that had built such fantasies. It’s an almost biblical theme that deserves big treatment, but doesn’t live up to its potential.

Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in 1925, and was unaware at the time of the impending collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression. But he nonetheless wrote a pride-cometh-before-the-fall story that presaged the upheaval. He tried to make the reader aware that the make-believe world of Gatsby was headed for ruin because at the heart of it are very human emotions and actions. That we cannot buy our way out of events, out of our actions. That we face the consequences regardless of our social position.

That’s hard to keep in mind when your senses are being overloaded with visual spectacle. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny objects.

America lurched out of WWI looking for itself. The first few years marked a radical change in ideas, values and pop culture. Radio was invented, new music – jazz in particular – exploded. Movies were the rage. In Only Yesterday, author Frederick Allen chronicles the journey of those years (I started reading this book about two weeks ago). It’s hard to appreciate Fitzgerald’s story without understanding how and why America got to that half-mad, wild and crazy point mid-decade. How a nation went from staid and conservative to punch-drunk on optimism, sex and bathtub gin, on money and on greed is the subtext to Gatsby.

The movie simply parachutes you into the depths of the excess and the fantasy. We get snippets of Gatsby’s rise from poverty to riches throughout, but they are not set in context, just flashback. Most modern audiences will simply wonder why it matters to the other characters. Selling illicit booze in drugstores? Who cares?

You never get a sense of the class structure, its edges frayed by the arrival of new money, or its inevitable collapse, as shown in Downton Abby. The viewer never understands why it plays a vital role in the tale. The social divide is glossed over.

You also don’t get a sense of the changing national morals in the movie. It was the time of Prohibition. A huge and upsetting social change. Women’s lives changed almost overnight from homemaker to participant: suddenly they smoked, wore skirts above the ankles, worked and voted (suffrage only arrived in 1920). And they danced. Institutions reeled from the blows. legislators tried to force women to cover up. Churches decried the impending doom. But the band played on.

At times it seemed like an entire culture discovered sex all at once (not simply the act, but the whole business of the human body, its look, its expression and its sensuality). Sigmund Freud’s works on sex and the libido were widely read in America in the 20s. It was a time of great unrest, change and yet of exuberance.

In the film, we get only hints of this (a scene in a speakeasy barely suggests loose morality and jazz, but it’s masked by the annoying hip hop soundtrack). In fact, we don’t ever get the sense that Prohibition is in full swing (it began in 1920) or the uneasy breakdown of racial barriers. The juxtaposition between black servant who cleared up after the parties and musician who made the music that created the party’s tone is suggested, but not clearly made.

Yet the story depends on this: the clash of cultures where Prohibition was the overt face of the law, morality and society, while indulgence and self-expression were its covert face. The point of Gatsby’s big parties was not simply that he had money and was lavish in wasting it: it’s that he flaunted it, while he flouted law and social convention. He created his own convention, showing that money could indeed buy anything.

I know it’s difficult for modern audiences to appreciate what a social revolution the 1920s were. The job of the filmmaker is to somehow condense all of that into a visual expression of the upheaval, the change, the impact, layered on the narrative – without turning the film into a documentary or some drearily didactic lesson. Nothing in this movie gave me a sense that the time was upsetting to some, that it shook the foundations or was the gates of paradise to others. Without that sense of historicity, the sense of tension and stress that permeated the decade and the book, Gatsby just seems like an overindulgent rich kid, a caricature of new money.

Maybe my unease also lies in the casting. While the first half of the film sets up the premise in great and expansive detail rich in costume, sets and CGI, in the second part you focus on the characters. I don’t care for Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire. Neither, I felt, brought believability to the roles.

Maguire spends far too much time staring at events with that deer-in-the-headlights look that worked modestly well in Spiderman. He doesn’t brood well, and his character should brood now and then.

DiCaprio has never been one of my favourite actors. DiCaprio’s Gatsby seems angry, aloof, and his smile is insincere. He doesn’t enjoy the massive parties he hosts, instead seems irritated and distracted by them, as if they intrude into his life rather than serve a purpose (which is to lure Daisy). The viewer is left to wonder why he does it. They’re big, splashy, and less intimate than a Rolling Stones’ concert. We don’t get a sense Gatsby is longing for something different, something better, cleaner or less noisy. We don’t get a sense of his ulterior purpose (until far too late for it to matter).

Casting Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan was not quote as bad as casting Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s best in the flashbacks where we see her show some emotion. When confronting the exposure of her love triangle, she simply doesn’t seem moved, but rather annoyed, indecisive and flustered. We never quite understand why Gatsby continues to pursue her.

The love story that develops between Gatsby and Buchanan in the present is passion-less; dry, almost like it was a second thought. Something they do in between parties and mad drives through the country in a yellow Dusenberg. There’s no smoldering love, no sensuality. And the hints of a sexual affair between them is so muted you could easily overlook it.

In Fitzgerald’s words, Gatsby is just a man trying his damndest to keep up the the Joneses, while attracting the woman he loves to pay attention to him. Like a bower bird, he sprinkles shiny things around his nest, hoping she will see them. It’s the pathos we never see in the film. He really just wants to go live happily ever after with her, someplace else, away from the madness. All the while the madness is eating away at him.

The ending of the novel had a wonderful, twisted irony about it and a great sadness, too. The movie just doesn’t carry it off. There’s no angst, no great emotion, just anxious flitting about and fretting. And, of course, the expected, predictable end of Gatsby – who seems untroubled by his own demise, more irritated by it than anything else – is an anticlimax.

Overall, I give it two and a half stars out of five, and most of them for the first half and the madcap, manic parties that promised – but didn’t deliver – a grander vision.

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