Film Review – The Great Gatsby
Ahh, the summer movie season. This is the time for big spectacles, epic stories, and plenty of action and excitement. The buzz is never stronger during the year than it is right now. And nothing says “Summer Blockbuster” like…The Great Gatsby 3D? Sure, the idea may seem a little strange, but let’s think about this for a moment. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known novel is a story of excessive indulgence—of bright lights, fancy clothes, and lots of money. If anything, the surface level extravagance fits right in with the movie season. And who better to bring this to life than one of the more excessive filmmakers around: Baz Luhrmann? While we’ve seen films tackle this material before, none have done so the way that Luhrmann has. He’s taken this classic story and molded it into a very contemporary piece.
Perhaps you’re already aware of the plot. Our protagonist is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a Yale graduate and WWI veteran. Moving from the Midwest to New York as a bond salesman, he settles into a small house on Long Island, known as West Egg. Across the bay lives his distant cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). The two of them appear to be well off financially, but cracks in their relationship clearly show, especially since Tom sees other women on the side and doesn’t put much effort into hiding it. He even brings Nick along to one of his parties/trysts, and wouldn’t you know it, Nick has a hell of a fun time.
Next door to Nick is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a very rich and mysterious man who lives in an enormous mansion (more like a castle) and holds amazing parties with guests from all parts of life. The parties are so big and Gatsby is so secretive that many don’t even know what he looks like. When Nick finally does meet him, the two hit it off and become friends. But as Nick guides us with his narration, we learn that Gatsby is much more than a lavish spender. He has deeper motivations at play and has secrets he cares not to share, mostly involving his meager past and his connection with Daisy. With Nick looking on, we see these characters—all trying to chase their version of the “American Dream”—eventually converge, with results that may not be so fortunate for some.
For the first forty-five minutes, I was completely on board with this film. Luhrmann (along with his co-writer Craig Pearce) creates a world that never existed in the 1920s, but feels more like a fever dream straight out of the imagination. Luhrmann’s camera pans and swoops amongst the objects in frame; he speeds the tempo and then holds it for a gorgeous slow motion shot. The art-deco style has a sparkling sheen for nearly every frame. As a visual stylist, Luhrmann’s craft is undeniable. He allows us to see how exciting it must have been to live at the time, when the industrial age was jumping forward and wealth seemed like a pathway to happiness. I even enjoyed the modern choices of the soundtrack. The contemporary music, with contributions by the likes of hip-hop artist Jay-Z, provides a non-traditional spin to the material. In terms of the mechanics, this all surprisingly works together. The shallowness that Fitzgerald wanted to expose of the Roaring Twenties is translated into a 21st century movie that is extreme at nearly every level—and that’s a good thing.
Where Luhrmann falters—and falters badly—is in the human element. When he steps back from the world-building and focuses on the intimate love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy, and Buchanan, that’s where everything comes to a screeching halt. For all the inventiveness Luhrmann has, he is unable to develop the stakes to a point where we care about what happens to the characters. None of them (including Nick) are all that interesting. They’re all selfish to a degree, and some are even outright despicable. Perhaps this is a result of the source material, since we’re supposed to be getting a group of people whose motivations are driven by their social status. But the problem is that the tone asks us to invest emotionally, instead of seeing them from a more cynical perspective. Also, a huge misstep is the constant narration by Nick. He continuously describes what we see on screen, spoon-feeding us information that we could have gathered on our own.
The Great Gatsby is a story about pretenders, but lacks the biting satire to treat them as such. It asks us to examine these characters and their relationships on a deeper level, but the execution was so bland that I started to check my watch. This is a two-and-a-half hour movie where the second half feels like it weighs a ton. It’s a shame that it couldn’t take advantage of such a promising beginning.