Saturday, June 1, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: BAZ LUHRMANN'S THE GREAT GATSBY

I'm not sure why director Baz Luhrmann and producer Jay-Z decided to make a 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I am certain that it's an adaptation that we didn't really need, but a better one than I might have expected from such pretentious origins. The first half of the film is as gaudy and flashy and generally awful as it could be, and it's damn near enough to ruin the whole production. But the second half (which is more about acting and story and less about the flashy visuals and rap music that dominates the first half) is just about good enough to save the whole production. Getting there is rough, though.

For the first hour, this film flat out defies you to enjoy it. Oh, it demands to be watched, and it's as hard to take your eyes off of as a circus accident. But actually enjoying it is another matter. Luhrmann seems to have been hell bent on getting the most out of the 3-D technology and hip-hop hits soundtrack that the studio paid for, and the first hour of the film is like a video game or amusement park ride with a weird roaring 20's theme. You don't have to see the 3-D version to be overwhelmed, either. We saw the 2-D version of the film and were still annoyed by the obvious way the film keeps gyrating in the audience's face. The swirl of colors and action and thumping music was enough to make me feel kind of sick, and it's almost a miracle that I kept watching. But I suppose I'm glad I did.

In the second half, The Great Gatsby relies less on technology and more on good (if overt) performances from the cast. Leonardo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan are good as the story's doomed lovers, and the rest of the cast (especially those curbed directory from Zero Dark Thirty, including Joel Egerton and Jason Clarke) are all good as well. The story is melodramatic, with lots of arguing and adultery and star-crossed this and that, but the performances sell it.

It was impossible for me to watch this film without thinking about the film adaptation from the early '70's. I haven't seen it in thirty years, but remembered it well enough to notice some contrasts. In the '70's, Robert Redford played the enigmatic Gatsby with an air of melancholy, where as DiCaprio's title character seems more detached and a little insane. I'm sure the Redford performance is more of a hit with female film fans, but I liked DiCaprio's edgier performance with its sense of danger. Mia Farrow's Daisy from the earlier film seemed fragile and kind of child-like, as I remember it, and that made the character's transgressions more forgivable. Carey Mulligan's Daisy, however, seems like more of a self-absorbed flake. I actually liked that. I liked that this film wasn't afraid to make its heroes less than heroic.

I'm unwilling to recommend The Great Gatsby, mostly because the first hour is garish and downright unnerving. But that was arguably a stylistic choice, and in fact it may have been the whole point. I will say that it seems like two different movies in one, and the second of the two mini-films, the one with all the drama, is the better of the two. It's your call as to whether the second half makes the first half worth enduring.