The Great Gatsby - Review

wogma rating: Watch when on TV (?)
quick review:

Eye-candy but rarely more, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby joins the list of screen adaptations that fail to match up to their literary counterparts. Good performances don’t succeed in elevating the film to where it truly deserved to be, considering the richness of the source. You won’t miss much if you skip the film, though you probably wouldn’t mind giving it a shot if you’ve read and loved the book, or if you’re desperate to see Amitabh Bachchan in his first, albeit miniscule, role in a Hollywood film.

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Wogma Review

~ ~ ~ Update ~ ~ ~
I happened to catch The Great Gatsby on DVD and here's an update on the DVD features.
It always feels nice when a DVD is packed with an extra touch here or there, to ensure that it feels like a collectible. Packed in an outer thin jacket with the same design as the DVD cover within, the DVD of The Great Gatsby also has an interesting special feature.

There’s nothing quite like listening to a director talk passionately about his own film. The bonus material in the DVD of The Great Gatsby is a 13-minute featurette that has director Baz Luhrmann talk about his choices and omissions regarding a few scenes that were deleted from the final film.

What it did most for me was make me desperately want to revisit the film as well as the book – that’s usually the sign of true love and understanding that a director has for his craft.

The film itself, I thought, makes for a better DVD watch if you’ve already watched it on the big screen and were slightly disappointed by it. The 3D is gone, the Luhrmann-esque grandiosity assumes smaller dimensions on a smaller screen, and you can focus a wee bit more on the core of the film – Jay Gatsby and his love for the only true love of his life.

Now if only studios and DVD manufacturers would specifically start designing DVDs keeping the Indian market in mind, vis-à-vis languages, subtitles and even packaging. Surely, we’re a large enough market to deserve it!

~ ~ ~ Original Review ~ ~ ~

Grandiose, colourful, an orgy of vivid imagery and music, Baz Luhrmann’s big screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby is often wondrous to look at, but lacks what it should have had the most – a gut-wrenching soul. That isn’t to say that the film is unwatchable; but even as a cinematic work independent of the novel it is based on, the film shows far too much promise to be failing as much and as often as it does.

The narrative voice-over must be one of the big dilemmas of cinema. Fundamentally uncinematic because of its very nature – if you are going to dictate something, then why have visuals at all – fact remains that some of the most enduring classics through the years have used voice-overs, and they’ve used them well. A quick skim through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’, on which Baz Luhrmann’s latest film is based, will tell you that considering the style of the book, the film would have to heavily rely on a voice-over to tell its tale.

A part of me was secretly hoping that Luhrmann would be able to side-step this and bring what I consider an absolute epic – even though I read the book for the first time only a day before I watched the film – to life. Unfortunately, he does exactly what was expected; in fact, the opening lines of the film (voice-over, of course) have been taken from the book verbatim. By no means is the use of a voice-over the biggest problem with the film though.

The film is narrated by Nick Carraway, a World War I veteran who is now back in New York, who recounts his experiences with one Mr. Gatsby, an enigmatic man who everyone seems to know of, but no one really knows. A film that is, at its heart, a story of enduring love and the sheer power that such love holds within itself, the competent ensemble cast keeps things at least marginally interesting all through the film. However, the film’s big failure is that it just doesn’t touch you, considering the emotional heft that the story in itself has.

Luhrmann displays a remarkable command over the medium, playing with it visually as well as aurally, succeeding in developing a fairly interesting narrative method. He also recreates not just the period that the film is set in, but the environment and feel that of the novel as well. The film also has a terrific soundtrack, one that focuses more on the mood and the emotions than on any sort of faithfulness to the era in which it is set.

However, while the 3D of the film isn’t visually poor as is usually the case, I fail to see the point of shooting this film in 3D. If anything, this film is hampered by the 3D more than most other films, because the glasses almost act like a barrier between the audience and the characters. At the heart of the epic-like exterior lies a core of pure love, one that deserved to be laid out for the audience without having additional encumbrances as distractions. The 3D is a poor technical choice (quite understandable though, considering Luhrmann’s background in theatre and the larger-than-life manner in which he usually treats his films.)

As I said earlier, the one thing that kept me continuously interested in the film were the performances; while Tobey Maguire as the narrator Nick Carraway is functional – he seems to be getting distinctly repetitive in his expressions, delivery and posture lately – the supporting cast comprising of Joel Edgerton and Carrey Mulligan, who play the husband-wife pair of Tom and Daisy Mulligan, are terrific, as is Jason Clarke in a tiny little role. Edgerton, in particular, is such a fine actor that it seems like a terrible waste that he doesn’t have more films written specifically for him. Amitabh Bachchan’s appearance is expectedly brief, and watching him on the big screen with another of my favourite actors – who I will come to in a bit – was a joy. Not surprisingly, he has a strange accent as well, but between his delivery and his baritone, it doesn’t really jar.

Leonardo DiCaprio simply aces it as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Not nearly as good as some of his other performances (his most recent turn as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, for example), he still pulls it off with such ease and conviction that he almost single-handedly manages to infuse some of the lost emotion into the film - not nearly enough to achieve what the story and novel deserved, but his performance works nonetheless. Also, a special mention must go to Callan McAuliffe who plays a teenaged Jay Gatsby. Though his role is brief, he is uncannily convincing as a young Leo.

I expect most people to be underwhelmed by the film, while some will probably find it downright boring. However, I do expect those who’ve read the novel to be intrigued by the film at various points during the runtime. There are portions where Luhrmann displays snatches of brilliance in the text-to-screen adaptation of the material, while largely he seems to have missed a trick or two when it comes to capturing the soul of the text. And yes, my conscience won’t permit me to end this without strongly recommending F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to anyone who is in love with the written word!

This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.

Parental Guidance:

  • Violence: None.
  • Language: Clean.
  • Nudity & Sexual content: Some kissing scenes
  • Concept: A war veteran narrates the tale of his wealthy neighbour
  • General Look and Feel: Looks grand and colourful, treated like an epic.

Detailed Ratings (out of 5):

  • Direction: 2.5
  • Story: 3
  • Lead Actors: 3
  • Character Artists: 3
  • Dialogues: 2
  • Screenplay: 2
  • Music Director: 3.5
  • Lyrics:

The Great Gatsby - Movie Details

The Great Gatsby - Trailer

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Comments (4)

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Harpreet:

Yeah Amitabh Bachan has an accent because he is not playing an Indian. You wouldn't expect him to speak like Russels average Indian would you

Pradeep:

@Harpreet: I suppose, then, that the question isn't what Amitabh Bachchan is NOT playing, but what he IS playing. He is playing a seedy New Yorker, and that strange accent I was referring to certainly doesn't belong to the streets of New York!

luke:

What is the reviewer's point? Why does he feel that the soul of the text has been missed out by the director? What is the issue with the 3D in the film? How do the glasses act as a barrier between the viewer and the characters?
A Film and a book can be seen as two completely different media but which still overlap in terms of their constructions of time and space; e g in terms of following a linear narrative, or by adopting the narrative device of an omnipresent observer. That is the artist's choice. What is the soul of the text in the reviewer's understanding?
And the glasses acting as a barrier; ha, ha, in which case the screen is the barrier too, and so is the page on which the text is written! This is a truly ridiculous comment!

Translating one medium, in this case a book, to the screen is a difficult and thankless job every time, but Luhrmann does a fine job. The film is visually spectacular, never over the top, in terms of the production values, it shows us the golden age of America to a T, the greed and corruption and sheer venality that actually underlie it. The lives of the very rich, insulated as they are by their money is also brought out well. The film never gives in to maudlin sentimentality and Caprio in his understated, controlled performance is Gatsby, some one who tries to live the American dream, but has another dream at heart.
The use of the word epic is to me completely meaningless; we are not talking about an adaptation of Homer here.
The voice over is a cinematic device; it is not a commentary in this film necessarily neither is it an exposition. The closest it comes is to let us know how Carraway experiences Gatsby, along with the visuals.
In contrast to Romeo and Juliet, with its staccato and fractured style, Luhrmann gives us a film reminiscent of a morality tale; a tale well told in the cinematic medium.

Pradeep:

@Luke: Once again, I must thank you for asking me such pertinent questions, which I don't have the liberty to elaborate on in my reviews due to space constraints.

To begin with, I'm surprised that you've never heard people complain of 3D glasses being an impediment while watching a film. My perspective on this, and indeed many will agree, is that certain kinds of cinema - big action films or films where framing and composition use a lot of depth - lend themselves better to 3D. The point of The Great Gatsby - the text - isn't the decadence of America in the 1920s which was shown so magnanimously in the film. Rather, it was the fact that it was the story of ever-hopeful, almost naive love from a man who is in the midst of it. When you read the book, you don't take away the spectacle of America; you take away rich, descriptive prose and emotional heft of Gatsby's love. When the emotions are so intense and personal, a pair of heavy glasses that you aren't used to wearing either in real life or while watching a film acts as a barrier. I'm amused that you find this statement 'ridiculous'. Well, to each, his own.

The larger question I beg to ask here is, is there any absolute rule that points to what constitutes an epic? Is it the number of pages? Is it how many characters, how many countries and how many years a story spans? Or can even a single word constitute an epic? I'll tell you my personal take on this. My favourite word in the English language is, 'always'. That word, in the right context, to me, is epic. Why I find it 'epic' is a discussion for another day. The point I'm trying to make is, Fitzgerald's text is so descriptively rich, so layered with perceptible texture & flavour, and, at times, so disarmingly deep that it takes careful deconstruction of its narrative to know what lies at the core of the book. Is the book about how Carraway sees Gatsby? Is the book about how Gatsby actually is? Or is the book really about the fundamental essence of human perception; the fact that each human being is prone to perceiving people, places and events differently, and that every single thought felt by every single human being is bound by subjectivity?

Lastly, I'd also beg to differ on another point you made. A voiceover is NOT a cinematic device. The growth of cinema as an independent art form with its own grammar has largely been stunted because of over-dependence on the rules and devices borrowed from literature, photography and theatre, the last of which is where cinema gets the voiceover 'device' from. I'm not saying that a voiceover instantly makes a film un-cinematic. All I'm saying is that a true cinematic adaptation of The Great Gatsby from text to cinema will only be really successful if the voiceover pitfall can be avoided. It may be a directorial choice, which no one can ever fault, but it is, at the end of the day, the easy way out. If you have to use a voiceover, you can just read out the entire book over a black screen. Even that, to me, would be more avant-garde than Luhrmann's attempt, it's visual grandeur notwithstanding.

Once again, a pleasure.

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