Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion.” – The Great Gatsby, Chapter 5, Nick Carraway, on Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy.

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Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is to me, what Daisy is to Jay Gatsby in the above quote. Something I’ve built-up in my imagination to be utterly perfect, up until I’ve had it, and I hate to say it, but the film fails to live up to my very high expectations. I will say that it’s a beautiful film, with solid performances and a soundtrack that has been on repeat since it became available. I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love as much as I expected to. That’s the problem with adapting any source material into a film… it’s someone else’s interpretation of the book, it’ll never be exactly what you thought it should be.

This movie will have audiences divided. Some will love it for the over the top spectacle and complete adherence to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source material, while others will hate it for the same reasons.

We are introduced to The Great Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire of Spiderman fame), the new resident of New York’s West Egg area, and new neighbour to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (played wonderfully be Leo DiCaprio). Nobody knows where Jay Gatsby came from or what he’s done to achieve his staggering wealth. All we really know about the man is that he throws a great party. We learn that everything Jay Gatsby has worked for is the love if Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, An Education). It’s a love story, a story about wealth, power, and greed, and above all else, a story about the ugly side of beautiful people…. At least the book is….

The Great Gatsby is a visually stunning piece of work. It’s so beautiful to look at. There’s so much to take in. Sometimes its too much. On paper, Baz Lurhman is the perfect choice to direct The Great Gatsby. He’s known for his over-the-top visuals and frantic camera-work. He assaults the audience with oversaturated colours, elaborate set pieces and loud music. His trademark style characterizes Fitzgerald’s opulent 1920’s era. The film starts at an almost whiplash fast pace, introducing too many new characters, with too fast dialogue and fast forward action. It’s very reminiscent of Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge! (which I loved). So much so, that it almost plays like a sequel. While the first half of the film occurs at breakneck speed, the second act is far too slow. The pacing is off. In fact, Gatsby almost feels like two different movies.

Baz Lurhmann once said that he chooses one element to heighten the drama of his movies. In Moulin Rouge, the music carried the heightened emotions of the characters; in Strictly Ballroom, the dancing carried the dramatic weight between the characters; in Romeo + Juliet the use of Shakespearean language in a modern setting was the elevating factor; and in The Great Gatsby, it’s the use of modern music in the 1920’s age. I love the soundtrack for this film. It’s cool, and the songs really fit the scenes that they’re used for – picture Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby and Meyer Wolfsheim (played by Bollywood Royalty Amitabh Buchchan) walking into a speakeasy club to Jay Z’s “$100 bills”. Just. So. Cool. Congrats to Jay Z on producing a great soundtrack, that really works with the themes of the film and book.

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The acting in this film was great. Everything seemed exaggerated to fit with the elaborate production. Leonardo DiCaprio was a fantastic Jay Gatsby. I am a huge fan of the book, and he played the Gatsby of my dreams. The perfect mix of charisma and veiled danger. He has all the friends in the world, but he’s so lonely. That haunted look never really leaves his face. We never really know who he is, but we’re drawn to him. He’s so engaging in this. You literally can’t watch anything else when Leo is on screen. And to get all girly for a moment, he hasn’t looked this good in years. YEARS! Kudos to the costume department for this film. Everything is on point and beautiful. At one point, we’re told that Gatsby “looks at her, the way that all girls want to be looked at”…. I guarantee at least 50% of the theatre swooned. Guys included. Although he gives a great performance, I don’t think that Gatsby will earn him his long-sought-after Oscar. It’s too been there, done that for Leo. Sorry Leo… the curse continues (“The Curious Case of Leo DiCaprio”: http://wp.me/p3pq8p-4).

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Tobey Maguire was an acceptable Nick Carraway. Acceptable meaning that I usually feel like punching Tobey Maguire in his whiney-voiced crybaby face, and I didn’t really feel the need to resort to violence in Gatsby. He simply served as our guide into Gatsby’s world. Although he’s supposed to be our main character, they could’ve replaced him with literally anyone, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. And as a narrator….his voice….. shudders.

Joel Edgerton plays a great Tom Buchanan. He’s exactly what I read on the page of the book. An arrogant brute, who has everything, but wants more. Edgerton was mean, menacing and overbearing. He instigates so much drama and exudes power. He really stands toe-to-toe with Leo in this, and he gives mean cut-eye.

I already don’t like the character of Daisy Buchanan. She’s a difficult character to portray, beautiful and resigned to a life she’s not happy with. She’s supposed to be a cold-bitch, who somehow seems warm and welcoming. This character exists. Carey Mulligan is a beautiful woman, who can act…we’ve seen this. The way she’s portrayed in this current version of The Great Gatsby is frustrating. But that’s the character. I feel that we don’t know enough about her to love or hate her.

All of the other characters including Jordan Baker, the Wilsons, Meyer Wolfsheim… are regrettably useless in this film. They serve their purpose, but serve mostly as story filler. While the film holds on to the books themes of excess and extravagance, we lose a lot of that in the second half, when it descends into a soap opera-ish love story.

I was on the verge of loving this film, but I never really got there. After another viewing, I may learn to love it. It’s a good film. Almost a great film. Maybe we can change the name to “The Almost-Great Gatsby”?

Leo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (2013)
Leo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (2013)

SPOILERS…. Don’t read further if you haven’t seen it, old sport….

The opening of this film is almost EXACTLY the opening of Moulin Rouge. Cue sad, scruffy writer type, recounting a tale of woe on his type writer. Nick Carraway is a voyeur. He sees all of this unfold, but he’s not a writer. I thought this was so unnecessary. I have to say…I really don’t like Tobey Maguire.

Baz Luhrmann’s pacing of the movie was so off. The first half, up until Daisy and Gatsby meet, is so fast… and once they start their affair, its unbelievably slow. Or maybe it just seems that way because of the fact that the story goes from fast forward to slow-motion. After Gatsby’s death, there seems to be an extra half hour tacked onto the film that we didn’t need.

Isla Fischer is wasted as Myrtle Wilson. She’s the one character that is unabashedly, grotesquely tacky. Baz Luhrmann could have done so much with her. But she’s almost mentioned in passing. The scene at her apartment is so unbelievably hard to watch. It’s a mess. Everything is everywhere. While this worked in Moulin Rouge, it doesn’t quite work here.

I truly loved the scene in the hotel room, where Tom and Gatsby finally fight over Daisy. The tension builds so wonderfully in that scene….until Gatsby snaps, and you finally see the violence boiling under his cool exterior. It’s so great. I could watch that scene over and over again. Leo DiCaprio is heart-wrenchingly great in this scene. You can see it in his face. He’s losing Daisy. She’s not his. His calm demeanour fades as his confidence in Daisy wanes. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. I love love love Leo as Gatsby.

The story of the film is almost an exact adaptation of the book. The language, the descriptions of wardrobe and settings – it looks and sounds great. The delivery seems a little off though. Almost as if the characters themselves are empty. Some critics are stating that this is the point. Fitzgerald was trying to convey the emptiness of the era. When I read the book, it seemed that everything about the glittering world that Fitzgerald created, including Gatsby, was too good to be true. To quote Kanye West “The prettiest people, do the ugliest things”. We’re supposed to associate with Nick Carraway, learn what he learns, and grow past the wonder and awe of the roaring 20’s to become disgusted with the ugliness of the beautiful people around him. That doesn’t really happen here. It all seems like an elaborate plot to get Nick Carraway his writing career. We lose all of the subtlety of the book for what ends up being, like most of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, a doomed love story.

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It may be the script’s fault, but it really seems that we end up with more style over substance. Maybe that’s the point of the film. Maybe I’m over-thinking it. Maybe I missed it because I was too busy loving Emile Sande’s 1920’s style cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”. A lot of people I’ve spoken with about the film, especially those people who didn’t like it, have mentioned that they hated the music. I’ve mentioned that I loved it. It added a sort of hyper-realism, and instant cool factor to the movie. Maybe the film would have benefited from covering all of the modern songs used as 1920’s versions. I’d like to see a jazzed-up version of the soundtrack.

“They are a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.” The Great Gatsby, Chapter 8, Nick on Gatsby.

I’d love to see The Great Gatsby again. I really think I’d enjoy a second viewing without sky-high expectations. I’m already on my way to loving it.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

  1. Great review. Reading the book may help you appreciate this movie a bit more, but being a person who actually read it; I don’t know how much it actually will.

    1. Thanks!
      Thats exactly the point I was tryng to make with my review. The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books, and my interpretation is obviously different than other people’s. Having read the book might have made it easier for me to understand what was going on in the first half of the film. I really liked the movie….I think I’ll love it the next time I see it.

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