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The Great Gatsby (2013)
The third of only four novels by Fitzgerald published during his lifetime; The Great Gatsby is arguably considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. It tells Carraway's narrative of born dirt poor, World War 1 hero turned self-made New York nouveau riche Gatsby's blind lust to win back upper class Daisy's love lost five years earlier. A 23 skiddoo redo. The Library of Congress featured it in its Books The Shaped America 2012 exhibit along with Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Capote's In Cold Blood. Then again, it also included Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat...
Admittedly, I hated Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Years after reading it, I still remember skipping over every other page to get to the point of each chapter without grinding my teeth to stubby nubs. Fitzgerald's writing style made it a frustrating read. A burdensome literary quagmire barely worth slogging through for a school assignment. Worse still, I'd already fallen asleep watching the equally dragged out, self-indulgent 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Bruce Dern. Redford's a screen legend, and the Seventies Gatsby won two Oscars - one for best costume design and one for best music - but that flick was a snoozefest. So was the book. Two strikes against. My bias was strong. Too bad Dr. Seuss didn't write it:
"(Gatsby's) distraught eyes stared down at Daisy who was sitting frightened but graceful on the edge of a stiff chair. He should not be here. He should not be here, when your husband is not. He would not, should not, said the fish in the pot." Niiice.
This 2013 release isn't the first time The Great Gatsby has been adapted from the printed page for the big screen. Fitzgerald's Great American Novel has been dragged around a sound stage and back a few times. The first, a 1926 Silent film from Paramount, reportedly no-longer exists. Alan Ladd starred in a 1949 remake, followed by Redford's '74 version. In 2002, a fourth adaptation entitled G modernized Gatsby as a lovelorn hip-hop bigwig played by Richard T. Jones.
Surprisingly, long-time screenwriting partners Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's spin on the book is absolutely spellbinding. They co-wrote the wildly campy, double Oscar-winning musical Moulin Rouge! (2001), as well as Romeo + Juliet (1996), an over-the-top riff on Shakespeare headlining then-rising star DiCaprio. Shades of similarly audacious eye candy and theatre wonderfully parade through The Great Gatsby. You see a grand Art Deco Xanadu, weary from the clubby, bombastic decadence and idle sin of the beautiful monsters languishing therein. Catching that glorious, bright yellow Duesenberg J that Gatsby slams across the screen in is worth the admission alone. (So what if that sweet ride's 1929 model year is wrong?) However, the script still manages to maintain strong storytelling throughout.
Sure, fans of the novel will likely bristle at how much this movie blatantly rewrites Fitzgerald's original. I thoroughly enjoyed the welcome short-cuts, artistic licenses and fresh results, finding the over-all film kept enough of the basic plot and core essence of the source material to remain easily recognizable. This is a wholly modern movie depicting a bygone time. The stuff of dreams perfume commercials merely attempt to evoke. The era shown is dated; the way it's shown isn't. The art direction and cinematic vision that pay clever homage to that age and select Silver Screen gems truly are magnificent. However, if you loved the comparably faithful 1974 film adaptation, you'll probably hate this far more slick and stylish, Hollywood-inspired 2013 Gatsby.
It's also a kick seeing decades-spanning Bollywood superstar Amitabh "Big B" Bachchan debut in his first Hollywood role, as charismatically sinister New York gangster Meyer Wolfsheim. Even if you've only heard of Bachchan from having seen Slumdog Millionaire (2008), you likely know his unrivaled fame in India is worldwide huge. Wolfsheim is virtually an extended cameo here, yet Big B effortlessly squeezes every drop of juicy venomous sugar from his Gatsby-defining character.
DiCaprio is absolutely phenomenal here, completely nailing every scene with full-bodied voracity and disarming humanity in his starring role. Jay Gatsby is a complex and tragic tinderbox of opposing traits. Headstrong, but soft-hearted. Doomed to his guilded snake pit of flappers' delights. His portrayal here is simply DiCaprio's latest in a litany of master class performances, frankly. I mentioned earlier that he channels a young Orson Welles in this movie. I wasn't kidding. Welles' Charles Foster Kane from the screen classic Citizen Kane (1941) is a completely different animal than DiCaprio's Gatsby, and yet jaw-dropping similarities in the individual portrayals of those two characters are undeniable. #oscarbait
The downside is there's not much depth offered from most of the remaining primary supporting characters. For instance, plot-important yet talent-wasting George and Myrtle Wilson (Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher) could have been played by anyone as presented. And, while reasonably well cast to type, the on-screen efforts of Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan feel predominantly bland and phoned in. There's nothing special. It's particularly a shame regarding Mulligan, because the clear opportunity to embellish upon what kind of person Daisy truly is falls desperately short of the mark. Joel Edgerton's Tom is pretty well the only other role that demonstrates enough notably layered sizzle beyond the scripted dialogue. Although, even Tom's privileged, racist backwardness could have been punched up a few more notches during key points - if only to more solidly convince Maguire's Carraway that cousin Daisy (wrongly) deserves better. Too bad.
Then there's the soundtrack. I saw the trailer a while ago, and thought the featured contemporary music for this 20s drama felt like a weirdly anachronistic novelty. Like hearing David Bowie's Golden Years in the medieval court of A Knight's Tale (2001), or Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy heard in 18th century-set Marie Antoinette (2006). So, I went into this screening a bit wary of how music supervisor Simon Duggan would handle balancing American Standards from George Gershwin and Cole Porter with songs by modern rapper JAY Z. Fats Waller alongside will.i.am and U2. Happily, the end result is seamless and amazing.
You'll find links to the trailers and a soundtrack sampler along with other goodies on the scene-rich official website at http://thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com. Among those and other fun treasures, the site also features a short blurb about the novel that includes a book club reading guide PDF, the thoroughly enjoyable Gatsby's Journal interactive book, and The World of The Great Gatsby infographic page. Cool stuff. Sadly, none of the couple of dozen posters stand out for conceptually reflecting the movie as well as the trailer does. They're boring. A stylized view of Gatsby in his hollow Art Deco extravagance, engulfed by the green light from across the bay would have done the job.
It's almost unfortunate that the majority of eyes likely to see this movie will belong to fans of Fitzgerald's novel, because Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is more a stylistic theatrical interpretation rather than a literal cinematic adaptation of the original book. It's intended for a wider audience of movie enthusiasts. And, despite its flaws, wonderfully rises to the occasion as a visually exquisite, exceptional showcase of DiCaprio's versatility. Definitely check it out as a glamorously fun matinee at a movie palace near you. Reviewed 05/13, © Stephen Bourne, excluding F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Seuss excerpts.
The Great Gatsby is rated PG
by the Ontario Film Review Board, citing use of expletives, mild
sexual references, limited use of slurs, scenes that may cause
a child brief anxiety, or fear, embracing and kissing, mild sexual
innuendo, tobacco use, and restrained portrayals of non-graphic
violence, and is rated G by la Régie du Cinéma
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