Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Great Gatsby Review

Ok, this one's going to be tricky: I do not feel even remotely equipped to tackle this film. Partly because I haven't read the novel, but mainly because I'm not sure director Baz Luhrmann functions on the same plane of existence as we mere humans. I have no idea if I mean that as a complement or an insult.

I've only seen two of his films before - Romeo Plus Juliet and Moulin Rouge Exclamation-Mark - and I remember very little of Moulin Rouge! beyond Kylie Minogue as the Absinthe Fairy, a gravelly version of Roxanne, and waking up with a headache and no trousers. But even that minimal familiarity is enough that I knew what to expect.
Luhrmann's films are visual explosions, often literally, which assault the senses with over-the-top imagery and incredible design. They're a glowing hyper-reality where everything, from emotions to costumes, are heightened and exaggerated. Worlds of over-the-top characters and doomed romances. They're pure style-over-substance but, oh, what style! The Great Gatsby is no different.
It's not entirely clear who Luhrmann is making these films for. They're too bizarre for the mainstream; too shallow for the art-crowd; too unorthodox for fans of the source material. While I may appreciate a version of Romeo and Juliet that opens with a shootout at a petrol station, I'm not sure it's quite what Shakespeare fans are after. Likewise The Great Gatsby punctuated with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. But then, it's quite possible he's just making these films for Baz Luhrmann.
What is clear, though, is that this man was born to make films in 3D.

The Great Gatsby does things with 3D that I've never seen before - stuff that genuinely blew me away. There are shots that drop through people's hollow shadows, into the next scene that's already playing there. There are shots superimposed together, but intersecting at the same depth rather than hovering above one-another. There's a scene where the windows in a New York building all warp in size, bigger and smaller, and some where text is scrawled on the screen in pencil, then ripples like water. My favourite scene in the film might be early on when Luhrmann uses actual period stock-footage, badly-recoloured and converted to 3D - it's surprisingly wonderful and immersive.
Those are mostly standard 2D techniques, but in adding that extra dimension Luhrmann makes them into something more. And even when it's not using tricks like these, The Great Gatsby's 3D is truly top-level stuff - up there with Avatar and Prometheus. The huge parties that make up much of the first act lend themselves spectacularly to the format - enormous halls filled with gleaming, reflective surfaces and garish colours; tinsel and fireworks and champagne. There are a few scenes of obvious CGI, but that actually adds to the dream-like hyper-reality of it all. It's gorgeous.

Into these stunning, excessive parties walks Nick Carraway, played by Toby Maguire, experiencing the decadence of the New York high-life for the first time. Well, the second time actually - the first time he gets dragged by his cousin's brutish husband on a drunken night of debauchery with his mistress. When Nick emerges the next day (with a headache, no trousers, and only fleeting memories of Moulin Rouge!) it's already pretty clear that these people and their lifestyle are rotten and corrupt. That's the obvious message at play here: that all the glamour and hedonism of the elite are hiding a festering core. But, having established this already on Nick's first night, where else is there to go?
It feels like a false-start. When we do reach the much more lavish, enticing parties of Mr. Gatsby, we should be taken in as Nick is, but instead we already see through it. By the time Jay Gatsby himself appears, with the suave, perfect smile of Leonardo DiCaprio, we already know that the smile is hiding something. This is probably carried over from the novel but it nevertheless feels structurally off - the illusion should fall apart slowly, not topple over right at the start.

It would have worked, too! DiCaprio is so charming and mysterious as Gatsby that we would have bought into him in a second if the movie hadn't already given the game away. As it is, he's still amazing in a role that combines the roguishness of his Titanic days with the intensity of his more recent years. Gatsby may have an annoying accent, and say “old sport” a few dozen times too many, but Leo owns the screen.
The entire cast is similarly excellent. Maguire creates a strong character from what is essentially an audience stand-in; Carey Mulligan gives depth to Daisy (the aforementioned cousin), both the object of Gatsby's affections and a pawn in his game; and Joel Edgerton is fantastic fun as her monstrous husband Tom Buchanan. They're all great, but there's a reason only one gets called that in the title.
What's weird about Gatsby though (and, again, this may stem from the book) is how he's presented as inspiring and aspirational throughout. Even after the other shoe drops, and it becomes quite clear that Gatsby is not only crooked but completely delusional and maybe even psychotic, he's still presented as someone to look up to. Carraway certainly looks up to him and, beyond a certain point, I really struggled to understand why.
It's strange, but strangely compelling - which pretty much sums up the whole film.

The Great Gatsby is first and foremost an experience - from glitzy parties to burnt-out junkyards it's never less than beautiful and, like the parties themselves, you get sucked in even though you know you shouldn't. It's thematically confused and the messages either don't land or land way too soon, but the brilliant performances and direction make it completely captivating. Baz Luhrmann has created another crazy, over-the-top world, but it somehow stays more grounded and vastly more effective than either Romeo + Juliet or that bit with the green fairy.
If you have any interest in Gatsby at all, I totally recommend it - but for gods' sake see it in 3D, old sport.