Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Movie Review


Famous scenes and symbolism re-imagined beautifully but also problematically.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” I have been frequently convinced that Baz Luhrmann does not know how to read, but I do have the advantage of literacy. However, I am not Nick Carraway and am not compelled to follow his father’s advice that opens Fitzgerald’s classic novel. 2013

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Screenplay by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

The first big problem with this movie version is that Tobey Maguire’s Nick is not the same Nick that we know and love from the novel. This Nick is a quirky, agitated simpleton who has gone insane and has decided to become a writer. His voice and disposition was all wrong. Nick is no longer our credible vantage point into the selfish, boorish ways of the old money and new money of Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Gatsby in East Egg and West Egg.

Much has been said about the lavish style of the film’s sets and imagery and even more about the ludicrous soundtrack. But it mostly works. I don’t think anyone can deny that the unrestrained money, extravagant mansions, brilliant costumes and choreography with a lively score just make the whole story seem more fun.

I still have no idea what the point of the 3D was. Nick’s bowtie and the strange shooting style (mostly prominent early on) just made everything look cartoonish. At times, it looked like they were driving Gatsby’s yellow car through the set of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. The cartoon-stylings mostly affected Nick; Gatsby’s parties are always supposed to be at least slightly surreal.

Problems definitely arise in the beginning when Luhrmann chooses to use his typical flash editing and put some party scenes out of order. The randomness of it all and Nick becoming even farther removed from the narrator we once trusted, was only re-confirming that this was in fact the disaster many expected it to be.

But then we met Gatsby. And more importantly, we met Daisy. And even more importantly, Gatsby met Daisy. It is literally impossible to live up to the expectations about Gatsby – both the man built on wild whispers of him being a war hero, but also the literary character so ingrained in popular culture that he has earned the adjective “great” in front of his name. Leonardo DiCaprio does as good a job as anyone could reasonably expect of him. He drew me in, and since Nick couldn’t do that, it was even more than I could ask of him.

One of the significant themes glowing throughout the novel is that of hope. Luhrmann even recognizes this with Nick referring to Gatsby as the singularly most hopeful man he has ever met. And then we would get a shot of the green light glistening off the water and through the fog from the end of Daisy’s dock. The one thing missing from DiCaprio’s interpretation of Gatsby was that earnest hope. I felt like a photographer on a model shoot: “Now give me a look of hope! No, that’s anger. Give me hope! No, that’s sadness. Give me hope! No, that’s frustration. Fine, just give me another look of despair.”

Gatsby yearned for Daisy. And so do we. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy was probably the most accurate character re-imagined from the novel. Starting from her introductory scene where she lay on the couch and the wind rustled her white curtains and her diamond ring sparkled in the daylight and then she turned to stare at Nick, she filled the screen with her ethereal beauty and faux innocence. I don’t think it’s surprising that the film takes its best form in the scenes where it’s just Gatsby and Daisy.

It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the grandiosity of Gatsby, the grandiosity of the story, and the grandiosity of the film’s visuals. It’s a beautiful story and it does look beautiful on the big screen, but then comes the nagging suspicion that Luhrmann never actually read the novel. After all, half of the quotes are just paraphrased and are not the actual lines from Fitzgerald, and all of the scenes and famous imagery are only the ones that have seeped into the public consciousness (straight from the Cliffs Notes, perhaps). It should work well as a way to introduce another generation to this accomplished work of art, and I do applaud them for that, but it doesn’t serve those who already know the book well.


Similar Titles:


Anna Karenina (2012) - A beautiful production that transforms Anna Karenina into a modern woman.

Midnight in Paris (2011) - Paris and literature taken to golden heights of intelligence and humour.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) - Not worthy of the rights to Fitzgerald's short story.