Monday 7 April 2014

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

A funky adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby targets a young audience by mixing modern music into the 1920s setting. The film is artistic and vibrant, but falls short in the search for authentic soul.

With a booming stock market fuelling the New York of the Roaring Twenties, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is trying to make a career for himself as a bond trader. Next door to Nick's small house in the Long Island village of West Egg is the grand mansion of the mysterious and extremely wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Every weekend, all of New York's social elite descend onto the Gatsby mansion to attend lavish and wild parties, although few of the guests know who Gatsby is and none of them know how he accumulated his wealth.

Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay with her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and at Daisy's house Nick meets golf pro Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Nick also learns that Tom is carrying on an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of car mechanic George (Jason Clarke). As Nick and Gatsby become friends, Nick learns that Daisy was the love of Gatsby's life, and their idyllic romance was rudely interrupted by the Great War. Now Gatsby has scrapped his way from abject poverty to ridiculous wealth, and wants to win Daisy back. But despite his infidelities Tom will not give up on his wife so easily, triggering a cascading series of tragic events.

The Great Gatsby is full of colour, music, energy and style. Director Baz Luhrmann stages the grand love story of Jay Gatsby with plenty of larger than life panache, the set designs creating vivid landscapes into which the characters are carefully placed. The backdrops, lighting, colours, silhouettes and costumes are close to perfect, but this is where The Great Gatsby starts to falter: The film resembles a series of impeccable set pieces storyboarding the Fitzgerald novel.

With every frame a meticulous composition, the outcome is a glossy poster rather than a thoughtful interpretation, a face value recreation that is unable to get past events and into character depth. The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce finds no penetration, Gatsby's profound sense of loss and longing distinctly missing within all the glitz.

But the film's sheer aesthetic brilliance and instinctive rush to beauty are undeniable. The inclusion of modern party music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Ray, and Jack White, among others, is a typically audacious Luhrmann move intended to make the film more relevant to a young and modern audience. The injection of energy is potent and the lyrical content of the selections is well matched to the narrative. But mixing new music into a 90 year old setting only serves to more fully block the film's ability to delve into the essence of its central romance.

And rather than bringing characters to life, the actors veer into the earnest theatricality of being consumed by the story's reputation. Leonardo DiCaprio oozes charisma fuelled by inexplicable millions, and does bring to Gatsby vulnerability if not poignancy. Maguire adds little as a too passive Carraway, and Mulligan fully looks the part as Daisy but remains an inaccessible scintillation rather than a real person. In a bullish performance Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan emerges as the only other presence strong enough to compete with the exuberant surroundings.

A feast for the eyes and ears but not so much for the heart, The Great Gatsby is fun and provocative but not so evocative.

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