Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The phrase "the book is always better" nearly always comes up when film adaptations of novels are made. How well that saying holds up depends on the film in question. The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings, for instance, did justice to their source material with quality films that stand on their own two feet and as adaptations. Twilight did justice to its source material by having an awfully low bar to clear in terms of being a better work. (Zing!) The Godfather took a pulpy mob novel and turned it into a cinematic masterpiece that far outclasses its inspiration. By contrast, films like The Da Vinci Code, Alex Cross, and a great many Stephen King adaptations took interesting material and made some terminally dull movies out of them. So how well does that old saying apply to this latest adaptation of the archetypal "great American novel", F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby?

To find out, I spent the last couple of days reading Gatsby, a book that clocks in at just 154 pages (136 if I consider that my version starts on page 19 after a foreword), not much longer than a Goosebumps book, yet is rife with characterization and layers that, after close to ninety years, people are still debating. Was everything that Jay Gatsby did all for nothing? Was his goal of wooing Daisy misguided all along, doomed from the start by his inability to separate his fantasy of Daisy from the real woman? And what of the book's critique of the Roaring '20s, of its materialism and decadence failing to provide its vain, shallow characters with any lasting happiness, which took on a whole new meaning when America entered the Great Depression four years after the book's publication? The Great Gatsby is an intensely deep novel that deserves the reputation that has built up around it, and its status as one of those books that everybody reads for high school English class. And despite its unlikable cast of characters, it's a great read, too, with as many twists and turns as a good soap opera and, as mentioned, some biting criticism of Jazz Age culture that applies just as well now in the Club Age.

Unfortunately, this latest adaptation (there have been four others) misses those qualities that have made the book so, well, great. While loaded with style (especially in the party sequences) and carrying a solid cast and soundtrack that is absolutely phenomenal, the characters are stripped of their depth, leaving just a bunch of unlikable Long Islanders. The film seems to entirely miss the point of Gatsby's journey, painting him as a man who, despite failing in his ultimate goal of getting Daisy to love him, still had the best of intentions. He is no longer the deluded farm boy made good clinging to an impossible dream that slipped away from him long ago. The film genuinely wants us to believe that Daisy is the perfect woman that Gatsby imagines her to be, not the vain socialite who clearly isn't worthy of such devotion.

With the central anchor of the story broken, everything else falls to pieces. Fitzgerald's commentary on the American Dream turning into a nightmare even for those who "made it" is gone. The many scenes of parties at Gatsby's house and elsewhere feel less critical and more celebratory of the culture that they revel in. Baz Luhrmann's direction makes the parties absolutely gorgeous, and I will admit that they were a great thrill to watch, even in 2D. (I don't know what the 3D looks like, but I've heard good things.) The use of modern rap and dance music mixed with classic jazz and ragtime was an especially creative flair, helping to bring that age of decadence to life for modern viewers who associate jazz with NPR and their grandparents. However, this superficiality only further undercuts Fitzgerald's message, making the "glamorous life" look even more appealing rather than hollow. This is like watching a remake of Scarface made by somebody who views Tony Montana as his gangster idol.

This film is not without its redeeming qualities. The cast here ranges from good to great; with the exception of Isla Fisher providing viewers with the most laughably Australian-sounding "Noo Yawk" accent ever, they were all as I imagined them to be reading the book. Joel Edgerton is suitably boorish as the old-money WASP jock Tom whose breeding and success certainly did not produce social graces. Carey Mulligan felt wasted as Daisy, with her character having less depth than the book's version had in her fingernail, but when she was given the opportunity to actually act, she shined. I had to keep in mind that the film was portraying her as Gatsby saw her, and in that regard, she really did feel like a perfect woman. Speaking of Gatsby, he is brought to life by Leonardo DiCaprio leading the film, making him the exciting and magnetic figure that I read. Tobey Maguire as Nick was a weak link, though, and while part of that has to do with the fact that Nick in the book rarely got involved in the story, instead merely narrating it, part of it was that Maguire seemed to blend into the background when he was on screen. His role was expanded from the book so as to give the ostensible protagonist something to actually do, but Maguire's performance just wasn't that interesting.

Score: 2 out of 5

A very disappointing adaptation that badly misses the point of the novel, glamorizing with Fitzgerald had criticized. While I would buy the soundtrack in a heartbeat, my advice is this: Stick to the book, old sport.

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