5/14/13

Green Light . . .

Is the green light hope, life, desperation, a goal, a challenge,
or one of the most overly debated literary elements of all time?
Nearly a decade after first reading the book, having watched two of the other five film adaptations of the novel and with a delay of at least six months (the movie was supposed to come out in December, 2012) for this highly anticipated version - I've now FINALLY seen The Great Gatsby. Twice.

It's not my favorite movie of all time (probably would not even crack the top twenty) but not only is it not nearly as "bad" as many reviews/critics would have you believe but I'll argue it is actually a great adaptation that does exactly what it should . . . leaves you feeling sad. And that is perfect. And here is why (skip directly to "Now . . ." four paragraphs down if you just want my thoughts on the movie) . . .

Let's be very clear, Baz Luhrmann is a director that likes to take dark, sad forbidden love source materials and make them glimmer and sparkle if only to remind the viewer, in the end, that the stories he tells are dark and sad. Perhaps you are familiar with a little play called Romeo and Juliet or the story of an ill prostitute and a true romantic in Moulin Rouge! (which IS in my top top twenty), or the epic class and cultural struggle of Australia and the tale of unconventional matching for dance glory in Strictly Ballroom (okay, fine, this one is not an exact match for my argument but if I ignored it I would be discovered (smile)). So - long story long - Luhrmann was right at home making one of (if not THE) Great American Novels (all caps to show respect) in to a movie.

I'll presume you are familiar with the source material (and if you are not, as a friend recently pointed out - you should have gone to school in the United States (smile)) but, just in case, Jay Gatsby (as in the "Great" one) a mystery to all and "known" to none lives in and throws lavish parties at his mansion on Long Island. His coincidental neighbor, Nick Carraway, is a newbie to the "New York Scene" who deals in bonds on Wall Street. By chance, Carraway is cousins with Daisy Buchanan, a rich socialite who married Tom Buchanan, an unfaithful rage-aholic polo player from one of America's richest (fictional) families. We learn that Gatsby once knew and loved Daisy Buchanan and goes to great lengths to reconnect with his former love through Carraway. For the rest - read the book and THEN see the movie (no shortcuts in life, folks).

There are no errors with the casting, in my opinion. I was not a huge fan of how much he marginalized Jordan Baker and Daisy Buchanan (played by the strikingly beautiful Carey Mulligan) was left to her most vapid and emotionally flat self as any take I'd seen on the character (which she deserved - let's be clear). I hate to open a can of worms here but Leonardo DiCaprio's as Jay Gatsby is far, far better than the job Robert Redford did (sorry, Old Sport) and if you don't get genuinely giddy when DiCaprio first reveals himself as Gatsby (tuxedoed, broad smiled and fireworks exploding) you're not really open to the charm of the character anyway. Tobey Maguire was fine as Carraway (I thought the "Golly shucks" looks in all his other movies that annoy me were right in this film as a young man truly wowed by his surroundings) but I thought Sam Waterston (who played opposite Redford) brought more (needed) moral compass to the role. I did not recognize Isla Fisher (who I really only know from her "work" in Old School, for whatever reason and do not care for all that much) in the small but very important role of Myrtle Wilson - which she played well. Finally, I thought the best character in the movie (by acting alone - he barely spoke) was Richard Carter as Herzog . . . Gatsby's assistant who knew all the secrets one could possibly know.

Now . . . the real reason for a review - the movie itself. The movie, just like the book, starts out at a breakneck pace. The scenery, the shot selection, the colors, the music, the pomp, the mood are all fast and fun and the dialogue felt a little forced in spots. This makes sense - we're just building lies at this point. No need for slow, drawn-out reflection or ease of telling the truth. This is just rampant joy with no responsibilities. Everything about the first third of the film is straight up beautiful (except, as it should be, the wasteland between the beauty of Long Island (ha ha ha) and the beauty of the island of Manhattan (ha ha ha)). No expense spared majesty and Jay-Z as the maestro for the film's music did his job impeccably. By this time next year Lil-Weezy (sp?) will probably be doing soundtrack compilations, sadly.

It is not until Gatsby and Daisy are reunited that the movie even takes a breath. And that scene breathes. It is fantastically awkward as any time old lovers are reunited should be. From there, as with the minutia of trying to juggle lies and emotions, the movie slows way down and gets almost sticky slow in some points. You'll notice that the sun stops shining as much. Leaves start to fall. No large groups or noises can be found (as Jordan Baker points out, importantly, early in the film small parties are hard - you can't hide). But there is work being done in this part of the movie/story/novel/tale. And you, as a viewer, are at once trying to figure out a solution and trying to ignore that you've read the book and you know how all this ends.

The third/final segment of the film is short and tight (like in the book) where all the lies come tumbling down and - like with any good Labor Day Weekend blow out - everyone notes the party is over and flees Long Island en masse. The sadness sets in. The truth comes back in to the sun. The loss mounts. No one is fully spared (not even Carraway who had developed a genuine friendship with and appreciation for Gatsby).

The last 10 minutes, for me, are not the greatest example of Luhrmann's work. There are a few vehicles that he employs that I don't really think fit and I don't see the need in (specifically the use of font on the screen which has been argued to show that, by that point, the story was only in the mind of a rambling drunk) but I don't think I could pretend to have an idea to better wrap up the tale. It just didn't feel "perfect" to me.

There are, as I mentioned, a few problems I had with the movie . . . first, this movie was one of several I've seen lately that has elements that seem forced and contrived ONLY for 3D usage (let's allow for some movies to just be in 2D, please) and I found myself watching scenes thinking "Yep, that's for 3D only." Second, there is a scene where Gatsby and Carraway are standing outside talking and moisture keeps appearing/disappearing/re-configuring on their lapels (something only fellow hyper-observants will probably notice), third, I wanted a twist in the adaptation to allow SOMEONE to end out happy (maybe Herzog is), and finally (yep - just four real gripes) I wish Beyonce had been left off the soundtrack. There. I said it.

Overall, if you're looking for a summer blockbuster that will leave you begging for another installment - go see Iron Man 3 (or just wait for Fast 6 and see it with me) but if you are looking for a movie that explores love, truth, lies, fidelity, friendship, and wealth with an eye toward avoiding all of the above except truth and friendship while making a beautiful, sweeping adaption of the Great American Novel with a cast full of people who, 30 years from now, will probably be toasted as among the best in their generation (a la Redford) - go see this movie. Then give the same amount you spent on your tickets to a charitable organization of your choice. For no apparent reason other than the fact that The Great Gatsby will remind you that all the world really needs more of is truth, friendship, and good deeds for the right reasons.