Flashback Friday (Catch-Up): The Great Gatsby

THE GREAT GATSBY opened last Friday but let’s say you missed it or you have a time machine. Here’s three pictures you might want to watch beforehand to put you in the mindset for Baz Luhrmann’s latest pop explosion.

See? So young. So pretty. (photo from imdb.com)

See? So young. So pretty. (photo from imdb.com)

A KNIGHT’S TALE

There have been plenty of films to use contemporary music in historical settings, but I can’t remember one that seemed to get people as excited as this one did back three days before my birthday in 2001. Starring a still very young and very pretty Heath Ledger as the knight in question, the film’s marketing played heavily on the “it’s a joust in medieval times but they are like totally stomping their feet to We Will Rock You” of it all.

I had little desire to see it so how I came to do so is something that I have no memory of. However, I do remember being quite surprised by how much I liked it. Yes, it was a bit dumb and silly, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Then, I revisited it. For some reason, lying on my couch in basement, (the couch I nearly lit on fire with a space heater a few years before while I slept on it, in case you were curious), it did not have the same effect on me. In fact, instead, I quite loathed it. It was bad. Bad, bad, bad. How the heck did I fool myself the first time around?

So I approached it this time with some trepidation. As if often the case, it seems the true measure of the film lies somewhere in between my younger self’s very disparate reactions.

It’s not good, not really. But it is populated by some good performances. Leading the way, is Paul Bettany as the writer Chaucer, portraying him in a way that makes sense that this person would go on to create one of the most endearing works of written fiction that also happens to be, at times, filthy, scatological, irreverent, and violent. Ledger also equates himself nicely. He’s not setting the world on fire, but the talent that would be honed and then brought to bear in movies like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and his Joker portrayal is visible in its more nascent form. Rufus Sewell, at the film’s villain, has every excuse to be a total cartoon, but manages to find a vein of humanity in his scenery chewing prince.

The love interest, however, Shannyn Sossamon is pretty terrible. I hate when reviewers say this, but I will anyway: it’s a bit difficult to understand why Sewell’s prince would risk his kingdom and Ledger’s knight his life in search of her attentions.

The music, it should be said, does work, but only fitfully. What at first watch seemed dead-on and on second odious is now a mix of “wow, that’s perfect” and “you know, you don’t have to use a rock soundtrack throughout.”

I don’t recommend it, but it might score with some for nostalgia and other because, hey, for one perfect two hour period 12 years ago, it did for almost 20 year old me.

MARIE ANTOINETTE

I assume most know this film as “that one about the French Revolution but with pop music.” The thing is, though, the movie takes place almost entirely before the French Revolution and only glancingly seems interested in it when it starts to invade life in Versailles. It is about the French Revolution in that it shows just how the few, the rich, the royal were living as to engender such resentment amongst the population, but it does not really bother with diving into events, it just paints the sense of it.

Additionally, oddly enough, the pop doesn’t truly kick in—behind a view score music cues here and there—until somewhere around the 44 minute mark. Which is, honestly, not a moment too soon and perhaps—or rather, certainly—several moments too late.

In rewatching this movie, I found myself surprised to see just how inert it is for the first half or so. Sophia Copolla has a great eye but the film’s pacing is leaden. It’s only when the pop kicks in that the story finds any juice or its point of view: sure, Marie’s royalty, but in more of a homecoming queen/head cheerleader kind of way than a classical monarch. The Court of Versailles as high school/college is a surprisingly rich platform to spark little moments of cattiness, beauty, and heartbreak: Marie and five of her friends watching the sunrise the day after her birthday, a brief flirtation at a masquerade ball the Dauphin has snuck into, the constant gossip-y about Marie and, to an extent that is somehow both less and more, the King’s mistress.

The movie more or less abandons plot here to immerse us in the situation. When the fever of it breaks, the viewer is left with a hollow sort of feeling, a nice trick that mirrors the existence of Antoinette and her cavalcade of friends, hangers-on, and rivals. Unfortunately, the picture does not do anything with that and it once again goes dull and quiet as it paces out its running time.

In fairness, I did mention there might be some male gaze involved. (photo from apracticalwedding.com)

In fairness, I did mention there might be some male gaze involved. (photo from apracticalwedding.com)

Kirsten Dunst, an actress I admittedly have a soft spot for—it’s not just male gaze but I’m sure that’s part of it—nails the vacillation of majority implicit in aging out of one’s teens as well as the feelings of frustration and isolation Marie suffers from as she finds her marriage is not at all what she hoped. She does seem the type to say “Let them eat cake,” in regards to peasants without bread, but only in the same sort of naïve way someone now might wonder why people don’t move out of the city if the schools are so bad.

Her counterpart, though, Jason Schwartzman as Louis the XVI is such a drip that he disappears even when he’s onscreen. He’s a collection of bullet points—he’s not interested in sex with his wife but loves keys and fox hunts—without any organizing principle to make him a character. Schwartzman mines moments of humor from it but it seems like he’s working with scraps.

Once more, I can’t recommend this movie. When the music is present, it does have adrenaline and pace and heart. When it is not, however…it has nothing at all.

MOULIN ROUGE

ROUGE is, I expect, a love it or hate it experience for most. I, myself, love it. It’s bombastic and has little interest in subtlety but if it did, if it paused to dial it down, I think the whole thing might just collapse.

The film takes place in what ostensibly is Paris, but is really a fanciful realm that could easily fit alongside Halloweentown or Narnia in terms of its connection to reality. The Rouge of the title is a nightclub where the artists have convinced themselves of their own purity but really are only trafficking in commerce. As I said, subtle this is not.

Ewan, Nicole, welcome to your senior prom. (photo from fanpop.com)

Ewan, Nicole, welcome to your senior prom. (photo from fanpop.com)

However, it is fully immersive and wonderfully apes the highs and lows of great bad love; the kind of love that is doomed, for one reason or another, but that is just too much—too shiny, too exhilarating, too intense—to resist. The spectacle of churning skirts, of leering gentlemen, of songs shouted from literal rooftops envelops the viewer and drags them along with Kidman and McGregor’s characters towards damned romance. And, like them, we couldn’t be more thrilled as it unfolds.

I recommend the movie because I really like it, but I also recommend it if you haven’t seen anything from Luhrmann prior and want to know if you might enjoy his work. If you like this one, I think you’ll probably find GATSBY a similarly good fit. If you don’t though…you might do better to stay away from the multiplex.