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.