Review: The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Lurhmann has a certain film noir. Various directors kind of get typecast and with The Great Gatsby now in theaters, Lurhmann is giving more evidence that you don’t even need to know that he directed a film to figure out it’s a Lurhmann flick. This can definitely be said about The Great Gatsby, which is opulent, excessive, showy and at times gaudy. It is a movie that I don’t think the author of the source material, F. Scott Fitzgerald, would be likely to approve. Something has gotten lost in translation and doesn’t feel quite right, but if it is entertainment you want, Lurhmann surely delivers that. The movie is hard to forget and you will be forgiven if at the end of it you sort of wish you could forget it.

When Lurhmann’s films work, they work great. The most notable was Moulin Rouge! (2001), which was also opulent, excessive, definitely showy, gaudy and it should not have worked at all, but it did. There are definite echoes of that movie in The Great Gatsby in that it too is a movie that is completely in your face, as was Australia by Lurhmann that I also reviewed. The Great Gatsby though has one fatal flaw, and his name is Toby Maguire (a.k.a. Spider-Man) as Gatsby’s next-door neighbor Nick Carraway. What was Lurhmann thinking when he cast him in this part? I’m sorry, but no. No, not just no, but strongly no. This sin is compounded because he narrates the movie and you really see more of him than Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Lurhmann, Maguire is a typecast actor. He fits in certain roles and not others, and this one was not it. Instead Maguire plays Carraway as vacant and bland. You need Carraway to be deeper so that his contrast with Jay Gatsby will be complementary. Instead you get a skinny guy with a nice demeanor and a half smile permanently planted on his face that you want to slap after a while. This makes it hard for DiCaprio to project Gatsby. Overall I have no complaints about DiCaprio’s performance in a demanding role, except to say I thought Robert Redford played it better. He just did not need Maguire to drag him down.

In the movie Moulin Rouge! the plot revolves around producing a show: Spectacular Spectacular. In The Great Gatsby there is the party to end all parties every weekend at Gatsby’s opulent mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. Half of New York City is there boozing, dancing and carousing with Gatsby mostly hiding behind the furniture. These parties are very much like Spectacular Spectacular, so spectacular that they tend to overwhelm the plot, but they do make fine eye candy. The actual plot is that Gatsby is in love with a woman named Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is inconveniently married to a philandering bastard Tom (Joel Edgerton) with his own fabulous estate directly across the sound. Both Tom and Jay are living large, both have hip roadsters and both depend on shady businesses to provide their opulent lifestyles.

What Lurhmann does well is provide a flashy, fun and frenetic New York City for us to enjoy circa the roaring 1920s. He portrays New York as a city busting at its seams, so overwhelmed with energy and creativity and guys in suits selling up a stock market that always goes up. He makes you wish you were alive back then just to be a part of it. He provides a nice and engaging roller coaster ride for us to enjoy with plenty of eye candy and with the exception of Macguire, generally excellent acting. It is supposed to be excessive and it is, but in fact it is too much. It is too Spectacular, Spectacular to the point where it swiftly moves from plausible to implausible. It is too much a director’s creation of what he thinks New York should look like rather than what it actually was. And that sort of killed the movie for me. It lost its feeling of reality and moved into the surreal. It became a Lurhmann alternate reality. It needed to be toned down, but with the exception of DiCaprio’s always-gentlemanly portrayal of Gatsby it instead becomes a movie too full of testosterone to really grasp the point F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to make.

We are supposed to leave the movie feeling that Gatsby was quite a memorable character and largely self-made man. Instead, you will probably feel like I did: that instead you are in Times Square on New Years Eve, the ball is falling, there is hoopla in the streets and that spectacle and a desperate attempt to overwhelm us with film noir has overwhelmed the story. And that’s why I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would be disappointed.

Definitely see The Great Gatsby if spectacle is your thing, but if you are hoping to feel some great transformation about a great character, well, not so much. Too many flashbulbs have exploded in your face. Still, you get to enjoy the spectacle for what it is. So, no, I can’t quite say it is a bad movie just not a great one, just one that could have been better and thus disappoints.  I wish it has been done with some subtlety and that Nick Carraway had been allowed to be a real character too instead of just a cardboard cutout.

That’s all, old sport. 3.1 out of four-points.

[xrr rating=3.1/4]

One response to “Review: The Great Gatsby”

  1. I largely concur. I will also say the “modernesque” touches to the score were well meaning to try to market and appeal to a modern audience, specifically the youth set. Yes, it did seem annoying and anachronistic, but if it does get a few kids to read some classic lit because they want to, not because they have to, it was a small price to pay.

    As for me, saw it once, don’t need to see it again. On the other hand, Les Miserables? Got it on disc.


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