By Alec Julian
“The Great Gatsby” and ”The Place Beyond the Pines” are two long, ambitious films with eyes on the prize.
“The Great Gatsby” is a tale of two parts. Based on the universally acclaimed F. Scott Fitzgerald novel recounting a summer in Long Island by a lush named Nick Caraway (Tobey McGuire), a well-bred Yale man working on Wall Street, and his entanglement in the affairs of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her unfaithful husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and the mysterious czar of the nouveau riche – Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – who has his eyes set on Daisy.
The first hour or so of the film is not good. Well, it’s amusing, as I laughed quite a lot at the bombastic, scarily cartoonish, uber-kinetic exposition. The movie treads graphic novel territory a la “Sin City,” “300,” and “Watchmen” – think SLOOOW-MOO… The contemporary Jay-Z infused soundtrack, which isn’t a bad idea per se, only fans the flames, however – how much bolder could this get?
Mr. DiCaprio is such a big star that seeing him suavely enter the movie for the first time made me laugh and clap like 007 had just ordered his martini. I began thinking he was severely miscast: DiCaprio’s too handsome for this – people are going to miss the point that every character in this story is despicable, even Nick the moralist (though, arguably to a lesser degree).
And yet, the film gets its act together in the second half. It cools down, simmers, stops trying to be so impressive. The hip hop turns into The xx and Lana Del Ray’s evocative repetitive song “Will You Still Love Me” (the movie’s best chance at an Oscar). I became very OK with Leo in a love story.
Instead of being contemporary, the film ironically evokes nostalgia, appearing as a throwback to Mr. DiCaprio’s formative years as a heartthrob in “Titanic” and “Romeo + Juliet” (directed by Baz Luhrmann, who directs this), before he played cops, robbers, and madmen.
But it takes time to acclimate to the vivid cinematography, elaborate costumes, and detailed sets. In a couple of Daisy and Gatsby’s scenes, I thought talking animals were on the verge of appearing.
Thankfully, it’s hard to ignore Fitzgerald’s prose regurgitated in Nick’s narration – the movie’s a faithful adaptation of the short novel and the source material is the ballast of this production. But a movie that’ s only half good isn’t better than a whole good book. But most adapted movies aren’t.
The rare cases are adaptations of transgressive literature like Fight Club, American Psycho, and maybe Naked Lunch and Trainspotting, which gut the fat very well. In this case, there’s little innovation on the part of the director. Luhrmann excites us by modernizing the content and presenting “Gatsby” as the paragon of summer cinema for an audience that feasts on films with zillions of cuts – but that doesn’t enrich the story the way “Fight Club’s” new ending or “American Psycho’s” many omissions made them better than the original novels.
John Clayton’s 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford as Gatsby is less engrossing and more pompous because the wearied debutante twang and the upper crust brogue takes itself less seriously in Luhrmann’s stylized version. Moreover, Redford’s “Gatsby” has the same problem Leo’s does – the overly handsome Gatsby.
Why not keep DiCaprio, but make him Tom Buchanan? Mr. Dicaprio made a fine racist in “Django.” Couldn’t he nab a nod as a boozy philanderer to boot?
When we see Gatsby here, we’re looking at Jack Dawson and Romeo – and they can do no wrong. But that’s not really Gatsby – Gatsby who’s as much moonstruck as he’s involved with moonshine. Doesn’t that sound more like Joaquin Phoenix?
In the movie’s only major innovation (besides maybe a couple of jokes concerning a pompadour and a pink suit), Luhrmann cleverly attempts to undercut a straightforward interpretation, by showing Nick recounting from a sanatorium from the get-go – suggesting that we question the reliability of a haggard, guilty soul’s characterizations.
“Pines” is the better movie. It’s mercurial, yet consistently high quality work. It’s a terrific roller-coaster ride, a realistic movie in which anyone is potentially disposable. Although there’s not enough artistic license to drive a whole motorcycle through, there’s enough for a bicycle. It’s a heavy film – a meditation on responsibility and accountability. While it’s not abundantly melodramatic, I had a fleeting gripe with the ending – but for better or for worse – that’s precisely what makes it an Oscar contender.
In “The Place Beyond The Pines,” Ryan Gosling is Handsome Luke, a peripatetic motorcycle stunt carnie, drifting from town to town, until he meets Romina (Eva Mendes), who, unbeknownst to him, becomes his baby’s mama. Learning that he has a son, Luke decides to settle down in her town – Schenectady (which means “The Place Beyond the Pines” in Mohawk) – even though Romina has already found someone else.
It’s not long till he runs into a semi-legitimate hustler, a sidekick named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn essentially reprising his role in “Killing Them Softly”) who explains: “You wanna provide for your kid? You gotta do that using your skillset. And your skillset – shazam!”
They decide to rob banks. Luke’s the assailant who holds up the bank and rides away on his bike – Robin’s the ultimate getaway driver, sitting in a large ramp accessible truck, waiting to secure the cargo, once Luke’s ditched the cops. And Bradley Cooper and Ray Liotta play the cops, who well, want to take the robbers down.
That’s as far as I should go. That’s as far as the trailer goes. You might hear that this movie is an epic about intergenerational bonds and fathers and sons and other lofty praise that seems unearned given the aforementioned description. That praise is fairly on point, but because of the way the film’s structured, you don’t need to know about that till you see the movie.
It’s a bait-and-switch feature and many people might go see it or not go see it thinking Gosling’s reprising his role in “Drive,” where he played a stoic, violent getaway driver who doubled as a stunt driver for the movies, by day. There are undeniable similarities between Luke and “The Driver”: both are explosive, relentless, controlling, and deeply infatuated. Luke just happens to be bolder – he’s sporting a bright blond do, copious tattoos (including teardrops), and lipping a cigarette in all but three of his scenes.