The Great Gatsby

by gradus22

Wes, I’m just happy to be on the team. Just be advised: I like to take a lot of contested three-point shots, I don’t like to pass and I can’t play defense. Additionally, I have never committed a legitimate foul in my metaphorical basketball career and honor demands that I correct any referee who assumes otherwise. Maybe the better comparison for us is the Damon Stoudamire-Rasheed Wallace partnership from the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1990s.

I haven’t seen Spring Breakers, but conceptually, it reminds me a little of Sugar & Spice, which you and I saw in the theater, paying the full ticket price, naturally. (ah, the mistakes of youth!). If anything, Spring Breakers appears to be a darker take on the same can’t-miss premise that somehow manages to miss every time. But still, I think you can learn a lot about a generation by examining its cheerleaders-that-rob-a-bank movie.

I recently took in a similarly tasteful film, Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. In Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (the man has a thing for punctuation in his titles, apparently), Luhrman has cultivated a supercolorful and exaggerated visual style. The man loves the spectacle, and so, if anything can be accentuated further in a Luhrman film, it must be. This works fine for Moulin Rouge!, which is pretty ridiculous to begin with; its characters drink absinthe and sing anachronistic pop medleys. And once you’ve hired John Leguizamo, digitally edited him into a midget, and given him a cane and monocle to play as Toulouse Lautrec, realism has pretty much gone out the window. Romeo + Juliet, despite its Shakespearean pedigree, is still a story about teenagers who fall in love and kill themselves, while delivering emotional monologue to anyone who will listen. So spectacle fits the bill.

The same can’t be said about The Great Gatsby. Despite the Jazz Age setting and sometimes overly dramatic dialog, Gatsby is not a story about spectacle and excess, but about that moment when reality intrudes on the dream and summer yields to fall. And in a story like that, you’ve got to earn your drama. F.Scott Fitzgerald may have given Nick Carraway the original, theme-stating line: “You can’t repeat the past”, but he built that on paragraphs of delicately structured writing. Luhrman, as you may have already guessed, doesn’t have similar talent or patience. Consequently, the most dramatic moments of the story are breath-taking. The parties are opulent to the umpteenth degree (although I think Gatsby may be renting the house from the Capulets in Romeo+Juliet, judging from the staircase-pool combo), but the poverty is done in its mirror image. It seems foolish to even point out that 1920s Queens and North Dakota weren’t quite the post-apocalyptic hellscapes that are put before us. It’s like listening to too much popular music on the radio; the production is certainly impressive, but after a while you just want to hear something resembling an imperfect, human voice.

The actors are left to fend for themselves. Some of them don’t make it: Tobey Maguire is dopey as Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is an uncomplicated bully. This is particularly tragic when you remember that the 1974 version had a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston giving Nick Carraway some restraint and introspection, and Bruce Dern balancing Tom’s insecurity, hypocrisy and cowardice while still managing to come off thoroughly repulsive. Carey Mulligan is more or less unaffected to the lavish sets and funhouse costumes around her, but it’s as if she’s been imported from some non-existent and much better version of The Great Gatsby.

Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the chops to get through this thing unscathed. He’s got that personal magnetism that makes him a marketable big movie star, and the acting skills to back it up. Plus, he’s been though the Luhrman machine before; he knows how get and keep your attention, even as he’s asked to perform pratfalls and he’s being shot in a way that underlines his perfect tan. He even manages to read some of Fitzgerald’s clunkier lines in a believable manner. Christ, he can call someone “old sport” without a trace of irony, which might be medal-worthy in 2013. But still, part of him remains solidly DiCaprio at all times. He’s a savvy one. He’s got Jack Nicholson’s cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. He’s at those Laker games. He sees the career paths in front of him. He knows where he wants to be sitting in twenty years and he knows how to get there.

It’s good to be here. I think this will work out pretty well. But enough about me, let’s talk about Daft Punk.

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