FRESH POUR: The Great Gatsby (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. (Busy schedules meant Clint didn’t have time to see a second film, so this week we’re just talking Gatsby). 

The Great Gatsby / dir. Baz Luhrmann / Warner Bros. Pictures

the-great-gatsby-posterBaz Luhrmann has long been known as a purveyor of spectacle: from Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge and beyond, the Australian director has a penchant for loud visuals, boisterous atmosphere and a frenetic sense of storytelling. With his latest film, the newest adaptation of the infamous Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann both expresses reverence for the source material and makes it his own – the results are a bit mixed, but it’s fun nonetheless.

The film follows Nick Carraway (a doe-eyed Tobey Maguire), a recovering alcoholic whose therapy in a 1920s sanitarium involves writing about his experiences in the nouveau-riche West Egg, at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Most importantly, Nick documents his encounters with reclusive millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, acquitting himself tremendously to the material), his cousin Daisy Buchanan (an effective, but slightly unchallenged Carey Mulligan) and her husband, boisterous blueblood Tom Buchanan (an intense Joel Edgerton), in a tale of debauchery, love, greed and death – all components of the great American story. The film, like the book, is deeply introspective, with Nick constantly attempting to chip away at Gatsby’s façade to find out what truly makes him tick.

First, the positives: the movie looks gorgeous. Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic style can grate to those who aren’t open to it, but he knows how to perfectly capture and update the kind of empty spectacle that was the hallmark of the Roaring Twenties. Gatsby’s parties are depicted with the kind of circus-like insanity of modern club culture (combined with the bacchanalia of the Moulin Rouge in his prior film), yet the later parts of the film slow down tremendously to allow the characters and scenes time to breathe. West Egg and East Egg are divided by an impenetrably foggy river, a visual symbol carried over from the book to show the diametrically-opposed cultures of old rich and new rich that was the novel’s bread and butter, and even the rare moments of humor are well-paced and subtle. As per usual for Luhrmann, the art design is phenomenal, and the costumes are effortlessly stylish (definitely one of the big highlights of the film – Gatsby and Nick sure wear some snazzy suits, and Daisy’s outfits are perpetually gorgeous).

As for the performances, they’re mostly excellent; DiCaprio and Edgerton stand out especially as Gatsby and Tom, respectively. Leo carries himself with the kind of desperate grandeur and delusion that one would expect of a newly-rich man whose own story is shrouded in secrecy. DiCaprio’s performance is self-assured, yet anxious; you can tell that his confidence is all on the surface – an attempt to hide the insecurities he has regarding his true identity. The cracks that show in his friendly demeanor (given sufficient pressure) are evident throughout Leo’s performance. This makes for one especially great scene where Gatsby is crippled with anxiety over the prospect of meeting Daisy again – filling Nick’s home with flowers and anxiously breaking Nick’s clock on accident. Meanwhile, Edgerton is the id to DiCaprio’s ego; Edgerton is all bluster and swagger in his wonderfully imposing performance, his square jaw and angrily slack face personifying Tom Buchanan’s need to maintain control and power over those around him.

Where the movie falters, however, is in the sum of its parts; for one, the pacing is a bit wonky. I appreciate on an artistic level the fact that Luhrmann front-loads Gastby’s bashes at the beginning of the film, lending the rest of the film that kind of lazy melancholy that people feel at the tail end of a dying party. At the same time, it does make it a bit of a slog to watch, as the pace remains fairly slow for the last hour-and-a-half of the film.

The framing device of the film (something missing from the book) is also a bit unnecessary; just because your film is based on a book doesn’t mean you have to have the characters read it out for the audience. It does play into the film’s themes of authorship of your own life (Gatsby attempts to rewrite and reinvent himself, as Nick attempts to rehabilitate himself and Gatsby’s reputation through the book), but the intercutting kills the pacing, and Nick’s narration often redundantly describe the actual events happening on screen. Were it not for Nick’s status as the audience surrogate, his role would be almost entirely unnecessary after Tom and Daisy reunite, making it difficult to identify with him. At a certain point, his role in the film is relegated to reading off Fitzgerald quotes from the book as they appear on screen, which eventually wears a bit thin.

The Great Gatsby is a bit of a mixed bag; some good parts, some bad – the film’s biggest (and only real) crime is that it can be boring at times. The film doesn’t do as much with Fitzgerald’s socioeconomic themes as I would have liked, eschewing greater exploration of the conflict between old-rich and new-rich that was at the heart of the novel  in favor of the romanticism and drama of Jay and Daisy’s love story. All the same, this is, surprisingly, one of Luhrmann’s more restrained efforts; he seems to leverage his own opulent style to draw in audiences, only to draw them into the enigma of Gatsby and the anxious desperation of his character – the other true appeal of the film. (Oh, and the 3D is worth it, so you won’t be disappointed if you take that option.)

In short, Luhrmann’s style (and the film itself) is summarized in one interesting exchange during that aforementioned flower scene. The house absolutely filled with flowers, Gatsby asks nervously, “Do you think it’s too much?” to which Nick hesitantly replies, “I think it’s what you want.” Love it or hate it, The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly peak Luhrmann.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for The Great Gatsby:

1) Drink whenever Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) calls someone “old sport”
2) Drink whenever you see someone with a drink in their hand
3) Drink every time anachronistic music plays

Finish Your Drink When:
Nick says, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re better than all of them put together.”

Join us next week when Clint reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness and the Michael Shannon thriller The Iceman!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

One thought on “FRESH POUR: The Great Gatsby (2013)

  1. Both adaptations Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina are terlrbiy wrong, especially so with Karenina I cannot even convey my outrage, and that may have something to do with me being a Russian born I think Great Gatsby is a fine adaptation per se, but with amazingly shocking twists on the visuals, presentation in general and composition.

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