The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Great Gatsby

Despite having a Bachelor's degree in English, I somehow never had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby.” How this could possibly be, I do not know. Due to such a glaring and inexcusable oversight on the part of both my high school teachers and my college English professors – and I sincerely hope none of them are reading this right now – I went into Baz Luhrmann's new film adaptation with a blank slate. (Yes, I know I could have read it on my own, but it's so much more convenient to blame someone else. So there.) I must admit a temptation to finally experience Fitzgerald's beloved novel, not because of what Luhrmann did with it, but because of what he didn't do with it.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a former writer-turned-bond salesman who becomes fascinated with his next door neighbor, a mysterious and enigmatic millionaire named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Every night brings a lavish party at Gatsby's estate, yet the man has a well of sadness inside of him. He once loved, and lost, Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), and he continues to pine for her. Daisy is unhappily married to the philandering Tom (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby lives across the lake from them, simply so he can be close to her. He convinces Nick to help orchestrate a reunion, which rekindles their romance while simultaneously opening up several cans of worms. Before long, the never-ending party screeches to a halt.

Lurhmann has taken an interesting, over-the-top approach to the material. (Then again, he takes an over-the-top approach to everything.) As with his acclaimed Moulin Rouge, the director makes extensive use of period-inappropriate music. This actually works, although it's a bit disconcerting to see Jay Gatsby driving through New York with Jay-Z blasting on the soundtrack. The songs – including contributions from popular artists like, Beyonce, and Lana del Ray – help give the period story a contemporary feel and a healthy dose of fun. Love it or hate it, this is not a staid, Merchant/Ivory type of period piece. Luhrmann also opted to make The Great Gatsby in 3D, which turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Scenes in the first half, focusing on Gatsby's exorbitant parties and luxurious lifestyle, utilize the format well. All the streamers, confetti, and fireworks look amazing coming right out at you. During the second half, which tends to be talkier and more emotionally internal, the 3D effects become virtually non-existent. Still, what works does so beautifully.

Pleasurable on a visual and aural level, The Great Gatsby stumbles considerably in its telling of Fitzgerald's story. For all the razzle-dazzle he brings to the movie's surface, Luhrmann fails to achieve the intensity that must certainly contribute to the book's classic status. The plot itself is really interesting; I like the arc Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan go on. The way that plot unfolds, though, often feels sluggish and unconvincing. DiCaprio and Mulligan both turn in fine performances, yet I never bought them as having some great, passionate love. They simply don't generate much heat together. Since everything hinges on the presumption that these two are desperately trying to reclaim a love that was snatched from them, this creates a bit of a problem. The Carraway character is also too passive and one-note here. It's not the fault of Maguire, but of the screenplay, which has him do a lot of observing and narrating while never sufficiently cluing us in to what he feels about everything. For this reason, I didn't believe that Carraway had experienced the profound awakening we're told he has at the end.

Things get very dramatic in the final twenty minutes, and this is where The Great Gatsby starts to hit its stride. Unfortunately, by that point, it's over. I enjoyed the look of the film, the music, the performances, and the story. The whole is less than the sum of its parts, though. Given all the scandal, mystery, romance, and tragedy the tale contains, I couldn't shake the feeling that The Great Gatsby should have been hitting me a lot harder than it was. Fitzgerald's book will be eternally beloved; the movie is moderately entertaining but nothing that will be embraced for decades to come. I see now that the novel is available for the Kindle. Perhaps I'll download it one of these days to see if it moves me in a way the film simply didn't. I suspect it will.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes.

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