Sunday, May 19, 2013

On The Great Gatsby

I don't usually write movie reviews, but after watching The Great Gatsby I had so much to say. I had heard many mixed reviews about the movie, so I went in with low expectations, which the movie exceeded. 

My initial thoughts about the soundtrack were justified. The use of contemporary tracks was an unnecessary risk that didn't pay off. The music's best moments were when it stayed true to the era, which unfortunately did not happen often. There was, of course, a rendition of "Jazz History of the World," but aside from a brief sax solo, the music never again evoked the Jazz Age spirit of, well, jazz. The lesson here seems to be that the obvious choice is obvious for a reason, and to depart from it for the sole sake of not doing the obvious is not a good enough reason.

Does it really matter what the music was? My answer is a resounding yes. All the glitz and glamour of the party scenes in Gatsby's mansion in West Egg, when layered with a Kanye West track (is that even who it is? I don't know), are suddenly reduced to what could easily be a costume party in 2012 that's trying too hard. Perhaps my disdain for hip hop in general is what sours my view of the soundtrack, but I don't think so. Is it asking too much to be able to watch a period piece without having to hear rappers in the background? The exploration of mixing the old with the new did not work in this case and was, in fact, quite jarring.

I said that my expectations, though somewhat low, were exceeded. The most convincing part of the movie, the most compelling, was DiCaprio's performance. Was it everything I imagined Gatsby to be? No. But was it a heartfelt, authentic, layered, and complex portrayal of the subject of The Great American Novel? Yes. DiCaprio captured the spirit of a man in the endless pursuit of the elusive American Dream, one trapped in the unyielding jaws of his own past. His performance alone won my favor. Even Toby McGuire, who was more awkward and naive than the Nick Carraway of Fitzgerald's novel, grew on me as the movie progressed. 

Unfortunately, Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan was less compelling, though not as disastrous as I had expected. The truth is that Daisy Buchanan and her complexity as a symbol of fickle America, among other things, was too big for sweet, demure Carey. I found myself sympathetic to her character, which is not what Fitzgerald intended. Daisy Buchanan is among the most disliked literary characters, one of the best creations of Fitzgerald's genius (because we readers are not entitled to likable characters, so long as their lack of likability is purposeful, and in this case it is, but this is the matter of a completely different essay). Though Carey captured Daisy's elegance and chemistry with Gatsby, she doesn't manage to capture much else.

I think Luhrmann's adaptation of one of my favorite books is definitely worth seeing, so long as people understand that there are many facets of Fitzgerald's novel that don't manifest in the movie, such as the beautifully crafted language (the floating words in typewriter font failed miserably with me), but I suppose this is the case with many book-to-movie adaptations. Luhrmann succeeded, once again, in creating a visually stunning piece, and though his ambitious attempt to recreate Fitzgerald's masterpiece on screen left me wanting, it didn't completely disappoint, and his efforts to remain true to the novel's themes were much appreciate by this fan of The Great Gatsby.