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Column Fri May 10 2013

The Great Gatsby, Peeples, Love Is All You Need & Something in the Air


The Great Gatsby

I have genuinely mixed emotions about director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann's take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. On the one hand, the lush look and resplendent pageantry on display is breathtaking to the point of being difficult to believe a film of this scale and indulgence can still be made; it's the Lawrence of Arabia of shallow people. On the other hand, so much of the film looks fake, and I'm pretty sure it's not on purpose most of the time. Shot in Sidney but set largely in and around Long Island, the shots of New York City and the coastline mansions where the characters all live look like they are three-dimensional version of period postcard paintings rather than the real thing. At its worse, the film resembles a pop-up-book rendering of the Jazz Age devoid of any flesh-and-blood characters for us to really care about.

When Luhrmann last worked with Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays the titular Jay Gatsby) on their version of Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, the director actually allowed the camera to pause for while to let us live and love and become enraged with the characters. But with Gatsby, Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan have ants in their collective pants, and keep the camera swinging and swooping across epic party sequences, across water and land, car chases on paved and dirt roads, and even within small rooms to convey a sense of mayhem, where no one has the time or inclination to look to closely at what Gatsby is really all about (assuming people even know what he looks like).

As in the book, the story is the remembrance of Gatsby's neighbor, the writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who has moved into a small house that is practically in the shadow of Gatsby's mansion. Nick has come to New York to work and is reunited with his beloved cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is clearly miserable (and rich) being married to the brutish Tom (Joel Edgerton), the most woefully underwritten character in the film. Tom is the standard-issue philandering husband, who still finds time to get jealous when a man looks sideways at his wife. Presently, Tom is philandering with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), who lives in a rundown little town between New York and Long Island, where all the workers live. The ditzy Myrtle is also married, to gas station attendant George (the criminally underused Jason Clarke), who doesn't so much talk as grunt his lines.

Daisy is trying to push Nick together with her tennis pro friend Jordan Baker (the mesmerizing Elizabeth Debicki), and I was never quite sure if Luhrmann was trying to imply that Jordan only played "women's singles" or if she went for "mixed doubles." (My metaphors suck, I know.) But when Gatsby becomes friends with Nick and discovers that Daisy is his cousin, he immediately befriends the young writer with clear ulterior motives having to do with her. There are some plot elements and characters added to this film version of The Great Gatsby that are clever and some that are a needless distractions, but whatever you feel about them, they don't take away from the fact that this story isn't all that intriguing as a film, unless you look at it purely as a critique of the filthy rich, which many have and will.

The novel is a series of observances with a loose story connecting them. For some reason, when I read the book in high school, the image of Gatsby's library always stuck with me. Most of his books still had the unbroken seals on them, meaning they had never been cracked open and were on the shelves merely for show. The idea that anyone would own a book to impress someone had never occurred to the 15-year-old me, but the older I get, the more it makes sense to me and I see examples of such image-conscious behavior everywhere. But for the most part, such analysis of the culture of the filthy rich is ignored. Sure, some characters are racist, sexist and unfriendly to the underclasses, but those are obvious, broad strokes. In a film that is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Luhrmann had as much of a chance to look at things under the microscope as he did to go big.

With the exception of Edgerton (an actor I genuinely like but am suspicious of since he made that horrible Timothy Green movie), most of the performances in Gatsby are pretty great. DiCaprio and Mulligan generate a certain amount of heat, as their past catches up with them. Maguire has always been good and playing the quiet observer inspired to action, although I have to admit, the best chemistry in the film belongs to DiCaprio and Maguire, who form a strange conspiratorial brotherhood bond between them.

Of course, the clothes are lovely, the sets are lavish, and the music (both the Jay-Z curated soundtrack and the Craig Armstrong score) and indulgent but catchy. It's Baz Luhrmann; he doesn't leave these facets unattended. But by choosing a plotline that he has told in nearly all of his films — that of a couple society (and/or spouses) tries to keep apart still coming together only to have tragedy intervene — as the template for The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann's greatest crime is being predictable, and there may be no bigger crime when going to the movies than to pay high prices for a film with an ending you see coming an hour before the end credits.

Sure the 3-D looks extraordinary; again, Luhrmann wouldn't waste such an opportunity and not take full advantage. But no amount of trickery and visual flair can hide the fact that this large vessel is empty and mostly soulless. I've said this before about Luhrmann, he's one of our last remaining visionaries, but he has to care as much or more about plot and characters than he does about making us go "ooh" and "ahh." There a party scene in The Great Gatsby that ends with the most elaborate fireworks display the imaginary world has ever seen. But when its over, there's just smoke. OK, that metaphor is a little better than the first; you get the idea.


The only thing more frustrating than watching a terrible comedy is watching one where one of the actors are genuinely funny in just about any other setting but not this one. And it's not like he or she isn't trying. Welcome to Peeples (a Tyler Perry production, although he did not write or direct), an endurance test of a film starring the great Craig Robinson. You can't have seen Robinson as one of the true breakthrough roles on "The Office" or in Hot Tub Time Machine and not realize how funny the man is. But this movie just doesn't give him anything or anyone to work with.

Robinson plays Wade Walker, a child therapist who uses music to help kids deal with some sensitive issues, like wetting the bed. His "Speak It, Don't Leak It" is sure to be a hit single this summer. He been dating Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington) for over a year; in fact, they live together. But for reasons she hasn't explained to Wade, she has kept him and her family apart the entire time they've been together, and Wade isn't happy about it. So when Grace goes on one of her many trips to the family home in the Hamptons, Wade follows her for a surprise visit. To his surprise, not only does her family not know that he and Grace live together, but the Peeples family didn't even know he existed.

Now, a normal human being in a committed relationship, upon hearing this shocking news, would simply pick up and head right back to the city. But this is a lame comedy, where people stop acting like people and start acting like they want to be in every awkward situation they can be in. The family patriarch is Judge Virgil Peeples, played by David Alan Grier, a comic actor who can be exceedingly funny, but here, he is reduced to an extended series of eye rolls, and that's pretty much it. He grimaces at Wade, he yells at Wade, he challenges Wade to various contests of skill and smarts, but none of it is really funny.

Other family members include mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson), nerdy brother Simon (Tyler James Williams, significantly grown up since he days on "Everybody Hates Chris"), television journalist sister Gloria (Kali Hawk), and her camera operator/secret lesbian lover Meg (Kimri Lewis-Davis). Later in the film we meet the Peeples grandparents, with jaw-dropping appearances from Diahann Carroll and the great filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who I'm convinced was hired because he names is so close to Peeples. Either way, he's one of the few highlights of the film.

Robinson is practically breaking a sweat trying to get us to laugh at some of his clearly improvised lines, funny songs, and silly faces he breaks out when, for example, he sees Judge Peeples naked at a nudist gathering one night. But no one can cut through the ineptitude of the screenplay by director Tina Gordon Chism, the writer of Drumline and ATL, two dramatic films that I actually liked. But Peeples is a hacked-up mess that seem to have scenes early in the film that set up jokes down the line which never materialize. But that's just one of the film's many issues.

When the scope of why Grace never talked to her family about (really it's just her father with the critical eye on her life) comes to light, again, a human being would simply withdraw from the scene and wait to talk to his girlfriend back home. But Wade forces himself into the family's life even more so by helping the younger brother with music, or advises Gloria and Meg on how best to come out to Virgil (remember, Wade is a therapist). Who are these scenes for exactly? I guess they establish that the rest of the family love Wade and that it's just Virgil with the problem. Fine, but it isn't funny or even insightful.

Robinson has two more comedies coming out this summer (This Is the End and Rapture-palooza) that appear to be much funnier and more his R-rated speed, so Peeples isn't going to destroy his career by any means. I don't think enough people will even see it for that to be a consideration. But it's painful to watch such a talented comic actor (and fellow Chicagoan) spin his wheels and go nowhere for 90-some minutes. My brain hurts just thinking about this movie again. There are simply too many better films out right now for you to even consider Peeples, and if you've read this review this far, I fear for your soul.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Peeples star Craig Robinson.

Love Is All You Need

So apparently Pierce Brosnan and his ridiculously wonderful full head of hair are intent on being the spokespeople for love affairs in exotic lands. After dazzling us with his singing voice in Mamma Mia!, Brosnan takes on a more serious role as Philip, a British businessman living in Denmark with a vacation home in Sorrento, Italy, which he has loaned to his son Patrick (Sebastian Jessen) and his fiancee Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) to get married in. While Love Is All You Need might sounds like another silly romantic comedy set is a beautiful locale, the truth is it tackles the subject of love and lost love with a much more serious tone.

This is not surprising, considering Danish director Susanne Bier (who won an Oscar a few years back for In A Better World) tends to place us in the darker recesses of what should be the lighter moments in life. Of course, she also loves to dive headfirst into the human condition at our worst moments as well, to see if there's a way out. In this film, everyone's love has been tainted by something. Philip lost his wife when Patrick was still young and he hasn't recovered since, making him a distant father and incapable of finding love again in his life. Whle Astrid's mother, Ida (the great Danish actress Trine Dyrholm) walks in on her boorish husband sleeping with a younger woman just before she leaves for the wedding (naturally, the husband brings the girlfriend to the wedding as well).

Even the young couple at the center of the events are having issues, especially when they meet the handsome young man who works as a servant at the house. And make no mistake, the bad feelings these people are experiencing are not of the cutesy variety like they are in something like The Big Wedding. It's highly likely that some of the characters will emerge from this story worse off than when they began. But in Ida's pain, Philip sees something familiar and the two become kindred spirits, even if they can't quite find the strength to be more than that.

Love Is All You Need is front loaded with great performances, with a dash of perverse humor and sharp wit that stabs at your heart every chance it gets. This isn't the best director and co-writer Bier is capable of (for that, look at something like Brothers, After the Wedding or Open Hearts), but it's still pretty strong stuff about two families of damaged people, trying to find love under the worst of circumstances — a wedding. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Something in the Air

If you've been reading my reviews long enough, you know that I'm not a fan of dirty hippies. Let me rephrase that: I'm not a fan of dirty hippies in movies because filmmakers almost inevitably get the characterizations wrong, whether the dirty hippies are ones from the late 1960s or early 1970s, or if they're dirty hippies in more modern times, aping the politics, lingo and looks of dirty hippies from the past. But with the great French director Olivier Assayas' (Summer Hours, Carlos, Irma Vep, Demon Lover) new film, Something in the Air, we have a type of dirty hippy represented more accurately than I've seen in quite some time, complete with all of their dirty hippy contradictions.

The film begins in Paris 1971, still in the lingering shadow of May 1968, when radical students tried to kick-start the revolution using film as a means of spreading their messages to the masses. Clearly working in autobiographical mode, Assayas uses filmmaker/artist Gilles (Clément Métayer) as his alter ego, a young student trying to find ways of using film to inspire action among his fellow students. But while he's trying to figure that out, he mostly vandalizes school property with his friends (including Lola Créton as Christine). And even when the group of friends is making the decision to get even more violent in their protests, Gilles is also running off to meet his exotic long-distance girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes), proving once again that even the most committed man can be undone by sex.

But when Laure says they should stop seeing each other, rather than brood (although Gilles loves a good brooding session), he starts up a relationship with Christine. And before long, some of the group are traveling through Europe looking for ways to fine tune their revolutionary skills in the vaguest way possible, just like dirty hippies do. In truth, their travels and discoveries are fascinating, enhanced by the attention to period details. There is a great deal of discussion about method and whether using conventional or unconventional films is the way to inspire other like-minded individuals to action. Should a director use more radical means of putting a film together to produce a radical film?

Relationships crumble and are formed, the backgrounds of some of these kids is reveals (not surprisingly, some come from well-off families still sending them money), and long discussions of movies and music lead to work putting together a psychedelic background visuals for a local band. Assayas is both looking back at this period in his life with a certain admiration for the innocence of these characters, while also revealing the sad truth about dirty hippies, which is that many of them exit their passionate youth to become adults and live truly boring lives. This is hardly a news flash, but Something in the Air is told in a beautifully realized manner that takes a little of the stings out of this harsh conclusion. You can accept the film as a message movie, or simply enjoy watching this moment in history being lived to the fullest; either way it works beautifully. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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