The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby photo starrating-2stars.jpgFrom a sensory standpoint, The Great Gatsby is an unqualified success. Director Baz Luhrmann has once again married a modern soundtrack to a retro setting in another anachronistic move that also highlighted Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I don’t mind the contemporary soundtrack produced by Jay-Z. In fact the hip-hop songs help heighten the excitement of the party scenes. Each soiree is a sensational wonder of Art Deco style. Digitized glitter and streamers fill the screen in a hyperactive techno dazzle display that is a visual and audible overload for the senses – a heady cocktail of debauchery, flowing booze and loud music. The camera swoops and dives amongst the glittering party people. Cuts are fast and furious. Two people talk and there are 10 edits to fortify the exchange. But the flamboyant choices give the production the emotional depth of a commercial advertising Moët & Chandon.

The pace is frantic. We’re never really offered a chance to breathe and given the dramatic time needed to understand what makes these individuals tick. That party at Gatsby’s mansion is perhaps the most invigorating set piece in the entire movie. Although our main protagonist hasn’t even appeared yet. That’s a bit of problem in a drama called The Great Gatsby. Even when Leonardo DiCaprio finally does make an appearance, he feels more like a supporting character in his own story. Daisy Buchanan, as played by Carey Mulligan, is supposed to have inspired Gatsby in his lifelong quest to win back her heart. Unfortunately the narrative never presents a compelling reason why this woman has consumed his life.

What works in a book does not always work on screen. Luhrmann’s slavish devotion to the novel hurts its cinematic chances to engage. Tobey McGuire as Nick Carraway is not the protagonist, but rather the first person narrator. He, in fact, occupies more screen time than anyone. He registers his approval, disgust, admiration to the audience on everyone. His constant narration is observing and commenting on what he sees. In the book he’s a poetic way to frame the chronicle, but in a movie, he’s a killjoy. He seems more like an interference than as someone who is helping the drama along. Baz has decided to have Nick writing the story of The Great Gatsby from inside a sanitarium while being treated for alcoholism. See F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words literally jump off the screen in 3D as Nick types them! It would be a perfect way to illustrate song lyrics for a pop music video. In this context, the static effect only serves to remind us we’re watching a dramatization from a distance. The device does nothing to draw us into the saga.

The Great Gatsby seems destined to remain one of those unadaptable books. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose never seems to translate properly to the silver screen. Filmmakers have tried. This is the fifth adaptation of the classic work of American fiction. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be The Great American Novel. It details the acquisition of the American dream and the hollow facade behind those that have acquired it. Fitzgerald beautifully captured a cross-section of American society. He delights in capturing a time and place, namely the Jazz Age of the 1920s in Long Island, New York. Director Luhrmann certainly captures the look of an era. The art direction is beyond compare. The costumes are extraordinary. It’s without a doubt a technical marvel of resplendent opulence. But the attention to superficial details comes at an expense. The spectacle IS the story. The amplified style lacks any meaningful insight that would make these people interesting. It isn’t until a heated confrontation between Gatsby and Tom in a hotel that we form any connection to them as well as Nick, Daisy and Jordan – the rest of the primary cast. Sadly it’s near the end of the film. The production seems more concerned with minutiae like the large curl in Jordan’s black hair, than in what she is saying. “I just heard the most shocking thing. It all makes sense!” the golf pro coos early on at a party before disappearing without explanation. We’re supposed to care what she’s talking about. Strangely we don’t.

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49 Responses to “The Great Gatsby”

  1. Great review Mark. All style that works in some spots, but never seems to tone-down when it needs to the most. Therefore, I never cared for what was really going on, or the characters themselves. Leo was the only one worth really going to bat for, and in the end; even he seemed to turn into a total loose cannon.

    • Nobody has the opportunity to give anything resembling a performance in this but yeah, DiCaprio was MVP in terms of the characters. He should’ve been the focus. Get rid of Nick (Tobey Maguire) or at least decrease his role for the purpose of the film.

  2. I really really enjoyed it ; if it’s not quite the great movie I was hoping for (MOULIN ROUGE for example), it nevertheless comes closer than any of his other films to matching that success for me. I know the exact moment I felt like not only it was working but the audience was understanding where it was coming from – the tea party scene with all the flowers and the cakes caused laughter in the audience (including me). I feel like this is in a sense what the film/story is about – the absurd lengths to which someone will go to prove their love to someone else. The movie becomes tragic from there. Overblown melodrama and overblown style fit together in this case as it did in MOULIN ROUGE! 🙂

    • I like Baz Luhrmann. I was one of the few that enjoyed Australia. But that had a sense of character and story this did not. I never felt any connection to these people whatsoever. Having read the book at least gave me a sense of the plot Baz was trying to convey. If I didn’t have that at least to go on, I wouldn’t have even understood what the point of this overblown music video would’ve been.

      • That’s odd, because I hadn’t read the book (I don’t think) but had seen the 1974 Coppola-written version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I felt a deeper interpersonal connection with these characters (in part because of the casting, in part because of the style, in part because I felt like Luhrmann sort of got the over the top underpinnings (oxymoronic?) of the story and that somehow humanized these people more than a straightforward, stale, stoic version would’ve – I’d compare it to Stephen Fry’s BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (one of my favorites) adapting Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES or to Julie Taymor’s TITUS (ANDRONICUS) adapting Shakespeare – the style helps make the story more timeless certainly as well as oddly relatable in this case I felt

      • P.S. kinda liked AUSTRALIA too

      • I remember enjoying Australia. For some bizarre reason, I don’t remember it feeling like a music video. Was Baz Luhrmann actually taking some Adderall there?

  3. I don’t think every scene, particularly the lavish party scenes, are meant to have that “emotional depth” you speak of, especially since they intentionally lack depth period. Although it’s almost an impossible feat, I think this is one of those movies to try to watch with a fresh eye without thinking about what it lacks in regard to the novel. I recently rewatched the 1974 Gatsby, and I was more convinced with Dicaprio and Mulligan as torn lovers than Redford and Farrow. Luhrmann actually goes significantly more in-detail about their past than the previous film that everyone knows.

    • Have you read the book? It has so much more depth than what is portrayed here. I never saw this drama as more than just a really pretty music video that went on for 143 minutes.

  4. I agree, Mark. The spectacle completely cuts the legs out from under the drama here. No doubt. I still think I liked it a little more than you (cause I DID find some value in the stylizing, itself) but still, I agree with you for the most part here. Excellent review.

    • I found value in it too which is why I gave it 2 stars for that. The story never took root. It has me bored. It was just a superficial display of costumes and sets.

  5. Ouch! Sounds like a film where the character’s weren’t thought out or presented to the audience very well. Too bad. I’ll wait until it comes out on Blu-ray. Well done Mark.

    • I kind of wish Baz had eliminated Nick as the narrator or just made him another character and made Gatsby the focus. It was a clumsy devotion to the book that didn’t serve the cinematic retelling of the story at all.

  6. I’m still writing up the review, but you echo my thoughts. I wanted to walk out of the theater about thirty minutes through the picture. Nice review.

  7. wordschat Says:

    Hey Mark as you may have seen on my Twitter or FB page we respectfully disagree 100% on this remake of the Robert Redford movie from the novel. In 3D at least this detracts significantly from the story being told. It is like a pop up book filmed for the screen which makes people larger than life but loses their soul for the sake over over bearing onslaught of visuals and a cacophony of music. I give it a generous 2 stars. Still it nice have minute to read a review. Cheers.

  8. Excellent review. I like the comment comparing this to a commercial selling products. I don’t think there’s a better way to describe how wooden everything felt underneath the production values here.

    Some part of me wanted to say there were a few times throughout the feature that “felt” like the novel, but i don’t even really know how to explain that thought haha. A disappointment, for me as well.

    • The atmosphere was intoxicating but it only went so far. After awhile I was desperate to feel just an ounce of passion for the story. I mentioned that argument between Tom and Gatsby but that was it for the entire 143 minutes. So disappointing!

  9. Great review, Mark. You agree with many reviews I’ve read so far that say this is a lot of style and not much substance or emotional depth. In the film’s defense, though (even if I haven’t seen it), I don’t think the book “presents a compelling reason why (Daisy) has consumed (Gatsby’s) life” either.

  10. Wow you must’ve been so bored with this one. Great review. I’m seeing this either this weekend or next weekend. Of course, I don’t want to be the next one to pay the Baztard ten bucks, but a) everyone’s asking if I saw it, and b) my younger sister (11) is obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, so I feel like it’s the right thing to do.

    • You should definitely see it as you might enjoy it. Audiences (if not the critics) have mostly responded positively to it.

      • I’ve actually heard from a lot of my friends that it was rather disappointing. One (a junior who had read the book) went to the midnight showing and said it was just like the book, but it did the book a disservice in its style (which I would expect), so she wouldn’t recommend it. I’m seeing it next Tuesday, though, and I am a bit excited.

  11. Great review, Mark 🙂

    This movie makes baby Jesus in his beautiful golden diapers and ghost manger…cry. Ok, maybe not, but everything wrong with it from my perspective can be boiled down to this: Jay-Z’s “HOVA” plays over the car stereo of a group of African Americans dancing to the music as they drive down the road. In the 1920s. *RAGE*

    • Of course you’re right. The song choices don’t fit the time period. They weren’t great, but they didn’t irk me the way they did you. Partly because I thought the film had more serious problems.

      Two reasons why I was able to look past it:

      1.) I had already listened to the soundtrack before I saw the film so I was prepared for the music

      2.) Baz did this in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! as well. It’s kind of his trademark at this point.

      But I’m with you. Some 1920s jazz age music would’ve been a lot better.

  12. Great [scathing] review Mark. Well, as you know I like this a bit more than you. I actually didn’t mind the pacing and there are some quiet moments here and there. You are right though, that the attention to detail is indeed superficial, and that’s what my main beef with it. At the same time, it’s not entirely vapid, at least not to me, as I think the unlikely friendship between Gatsby and Carraway is actually quite engaging, more so than the unrequited romance.

    • Thanks Ruth! 🙂

      I remember after reading my glowing review of Anna Karenina, you dismissed the movie and said “it strikes me as more style than substance.”

      This production is where that critique totally rings true – for me anyway. Nick Carraway was such an uninteresting character and I felt like he got in the way of Gatsby’s story. Too much Nick narration, not enough Gatsby. Baz’s slavish devotion to the novel came at the expense of portraying Gatsby as the engaging star he should’ve been.

      Side note: All of those 3D words popping off the screen was just a distraction.

  13. I’m going to try to get better about commenting on peoples’ blogs that I read, might as well start now

    Totally agree with you when you say that the spectacle is the story, but I’m surprised to hear that it’s such a slavish adaptation. I guess I just assumed that it was pretty loose because of how melodramatic it was, but I suppose that was more Luhrman’s style than anything. Good review, I couldn’t quite bring myself to call it a “bad” movie per se, but I still have no desire to see it again.

    • I think filmmakers should make concessions when adapting a book into a film. “Nick Carraway” was an issue I felt that plagued the 1974 version as well. I wish Baz had made him just another character instead of the ever present narrator. Even I (who didn’t like the film) still perked up when Leonardo Dicaprio finally appeared. It’s called The Great Gatsby after all.

      Thanks for commenting Andy! I appreciate that.

  14. Great review. I completely agree. The film was visually stunning. But I found myself completely disengaged by hour two.

  15. Mark, this just did not work for me. I wish he had either done a 1920’s period piece (soundtrack too). Or Baz had gone full modern re-interpretation like in R&J. The splashy visuals and modern soundtrack distracted me from the story. All the subtle touches of the novel get dashed in this film.

    • I know what you mean. The soundtrack could’ve celebrated the jazz age. I was actually hoping Baz had went for a full blown musical à la Moulin Rouge. I think I might’ve been a bit more forgiving of the lack of depth then.

  16. As usual so well written and nuanced review
    Very disappointed that such an anticipated film is yet another dud
    Better luck next time to whomever dares to tackle this daunting tale

    • The Great Gatsby seems to be a difficult book to dramatize effectively. Still this version has become a moderate sized hit so it’s a success – financially anyway.

  17. I was disappointed by this movie. It was slow paced and kinda boring. Then all of a sudden we were blasted by this annoying music that did not fit the movie. What worked in Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet did not work here. I did not care for it. 2 stars

    • I know what you mean. Strangely even though it’s more frantic that the 1974 Redford version, it’s still boring because the characters are just bodies walking through a set. Never engaged my emotions.

  18. Diana Post Says:

    I liked the 1974 version w/Robert Redford much more, movie was more flamboyant. This one was boring. Good review.

  19. I really enjoyed this movie. I haven’t read the book or seen any other versions of the movie, but I had a great time. I felt like I was in New York during that scene with the trumpeter on the fire escape.

    My only complaint would be that Tobey Maguire seemed like the main character, and his narration was excessive.

    • Yeah I think the story focused too much on Nick Carraway, an uninteresting character in both the book and movie.

      How did you avoid getting this assigned in school? I thought it was mandatory reading in the U.S. educational curriculum.

      • I have to read the book in junior year. Though I’m reading it right now actually. I started just a few hours after the movie, and I love it.

  20. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I really did feel the narrative and characters, except Maguire… the edit was too fast but I felt Luhrmann didn’t over do this film, regardless of hating Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet. The style in this film didn’t over shadow much for me.

  21. Have to agree completely with you. It was a lot of beautiful imagery, but the story behind it just wasn’t compelling enough to truly engage me. It was a disappointment.

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