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'The Great Gatsby,' 'Big Shot' and the American Dream

May 10, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Leonardo DiCaprio raises a glass in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby."
Leonardo DiCaprio raises a glass in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great…

While those of us who write about film like to believe otherwise, most movies don’t have a lot to say about social or cultural moments.

It's partly, as you'll often hear, because films are the culmination of a years-long effort whose moment has generally passed by the time a movie actually gets to the screen. But it's also true for a simpler reason: In all but a handful of cases, films bear the mark of a semi-large group of people. And a semi-large group of people is about as adept at capturing a moment as a flash mob is at catching a mosquito.

Still, we journalists persist. And once in a blue moon a movie comes along that does capture a moment, or at least tries to.

Review: 'Gatsby's' substance overwhelmed by Luhrmann's style

We may be under such a moon now with two new films. The first, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” you’ve probably heard of. The other, a sports documentary titled “Big Shot,” you probably haven’t.

First to "Gatsby." Few claim that Luhrmann’s film is trying to size up the nature of greed and its relationship to the American dream circa the 21st century. Few, that is, except for Luhrmann himself, who in an interview before he began production described his motivations thusly: "If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, 'You've been drunk on money,' they're not going to want to see it. But if you reflected it on another time, I think they'd be willing to see it."

Lest you think he abandoned this goal in the years since, he has been clear that he hasn't. One of the main reasons he was so keen to adapt the book, he's said, is because of what the “Gatsby” story can tell us about ourselves and the modern world. “Somehow, it is a great reflector for everyone,” he told Reuters. And that Luhrmann had an unusually large amount of creative control makes it easy to assume a single vision in a way impossible with most studio movies.

How successful he has been in capturing this zeitgeist is another matter. Plenty of critics, at least, believe that, thanks to its eye-popping 3-D set pieces, its party scenes in which scores of extras are celebrating while an aloof Gatsby is lionized, the film misses the novel’s point about the corrosive side of the American dream. The danger in using shiny, gilded surfaces to comment on a shiny, gilded age is that you risk becoming part of what you've set out to scrutinize, and skeptics wonder if Luhrmann's  walked right into this sand trap. 

PHOTOS: 'The Great Gatsby' premiere

The more generous, of course, say Luhrmann is simply holding up a mirror. But many others ask if, in the movie’s orgiastic display of money (both on screen and off), he is more likely hoisting the glitz on a pedestal, glorifying what Fitzgerald had come to question. Writing in Variety, the critic Scott Foundas noted, "What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball.” In The Times, Kenneth Turan also wonders if Luhrmann's grandiose style has undermined the novel's point of view.

(It won’t go unnoticed by irony-watchers that Warner Bros. has recruited as a marketing partner Samsung Galaxy, a brand that more than most offers the promise of a shiny future--a shimmering mirage, even. It probably also won’t go unnoticed that the film is coming out the same week that the Dow hit its highest point in history.)

Now to “Big Shot.”  You probably haven't heard of the film  because it's had just a few showings so far, a couple of weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. Made under the auspices of ESPN, the movie will air later this year on the network, which over the last few years has been producing a group of diverse documentaries in and out of its “30 for 30” program.

Here’s the quick breakdown. Directed by the actor Kevin Connolly, “Big Shot” tells of a con man named John Spano.  Hard-core hockey followers and long-suffering Islanders fans, yours truly among them, will know Spano’s story. Others will be shocked to learn of it. 

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