I originally posted this review here: http://letterboxd.com/jdsarge/film/the-great-gatsby-2013-5/
Let me start this review by making one thing clear: I like Baz Luhrmann. While I haven’t seen Strictly Ballroom or Australia, his adaption of Romeo+Juliet is highly entertaining, and Moulin Rouge is one of my personal favorite movies. His bombastic style in those films just somehow works and never detracts from the narrative.
In Gatsby however, I’m not sure that his style works for this story very well. Sure, the novel is a surreal and and dreamy, but for me the story has always been about the great character conflicts and interactions. This adaption falls completely flat in drawing those out.
My main gripe with this film is its complete lack of subtlety. It seems like Luhrmann read the book once, read the spark notes and picked out the themes, and then proceeded to hammer you over the head with them for the next two hours. I get it, the green light was a symbol for Gatsby, and we don’t need to see it a thousand times. The voice over narration, and the writing on the screen completely goes against the rules of film-making. A film must show, not tell what is going on screen. I like the writing of the novel very much, but it doesn’t need to be portrayed on screen incessantly to remind me of Fitzgerald’s style.
The CGI was also a big detractor for me. It was used far, far too often, and often looked rather amateur most of the time. This movie had a ridiculous budget, and they can’t render what Manhattan looked like in the 1920’s? Come on. The entire movie felt ethereal, which I suppose is keeping in line with the tone of the novel in some sense. The problem is that there is nothing to combat this tone. We have scenes of crazy partying and very quiet intimate moments, but neither of these have any weight whatsoever to add to the film. The film needed a solid anchor, which should have been Gatsby’s memories, but these are even more fleeting than the rest of the film.
Only two scenes stood out to me as exceptional: the Plaza Room hotel and Myrtle’s death. With the Plaza Room scene, the characters finally get a chance to act without all of the pomp and circumstance getting in the way. DiCaprio and Edgerton really show off their acting chops here, and the tension is immense. Myrtle’s death, while a bit over-dramatic and extravagant, was a great visual image that happened just like I remembered it happening in the novel.
Contrast these scenes with Gatsby’s death. Or any of his parties. Or any scene of Nick back at the sanitarium. Gatsby’s death is so drawn out and over-dramatic that I just wanted it to end. The scenes leading up to his death felt the same way. It’s as if Luhrmann is screaming at us “BY THE WAY THIS IS THE LAST TIME NICK SEES GATSBY! OH AND IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW HE’S GOING TO DIE SOON.” What made Gatsby’s death so memorable in the book was how sudden and surprising it was. Luhrmann’s take has none of these qualities. The parties weren’t bad by any means, but for how extravagant they were supposed to be they felt rather bland and tame compared to what I imagined them being like in the book.
The casting was so-so. DiCaprio was incredible, as was Edgerton, but everyone else was either forgettable or way too dramatic. Carey Mulligan, you may be beautiful, but you are not a good crier, and you do not have the acting skills to pull off a character that is as troubled as Daisy. The decision to have Tobey Maguire narrate from a sanitarium is questionable at best, and his look of wonder is more akin to a 5 year old child than that of a 20 something bond trader.
For all the complaints I’ve heard about the soundtrack, it really wasn’t bad at all. I rather enjoyed most of what Luhrmann was trying to do, and nothing felt entirely out of place. My main issue was that it hardly enhanced the film whatsoever. You get some modern pop during the dance scenes, and whenever black people are present some old Jay-Z song will start playing. Lana Del Rey covers all the quite dramatic moments of the film, and that’s about it. I think Luhrmann’s choice of music is actually quite restrained. If he had gone all out I would have enjoyed it a bit more. The standout moment is the use of Gershwin, but that might just be because I love Rhapsody in Blue so much.
Visually the film just never grabbed me. Lots of bright colors, lots of really fast cuts, and not a whole else. And a whole lot of bad green screen. I understand that the story is rather fantastical, but the lack of real set pieces really irked me a whole lot. Even though the sets that the characters inhabited matched the novels perfectly, I never felt that enough attention was drawn to them. You get a shot that sets the scene, and then the set just disappears into the background. The editing is also flat out BAD at points. How many times do we have to cut back to back between a bearded Maguire, and a shaved Maguire? Luhrmann keeps cutting back to these shots incessantly. This is a basic no-no for film making. And one last tidbit: whenever the characters were in the cars, their dialogue never quite synced up with their mouths. A minor issue I know, but a film with this much money poured into it shouldn’t have missed these little details. The whole film just feels like it was rushed through the editing process, and it really suffers for that.
The novel deals with a lot of basic human questions, but these are entirely absent in the film. Instead we get this dramatic love story and lots of bright colors and flashy editing. I hardly got to know any of the characters at all, and that to me is what Gatsby is about. It’s not a circus movie, it’s a character movie. Luhrmann seems to have forgotten that, and instead chooses to remind his audience constantly that people partied a lot in the 20’s and that’s all that happened. Oh and by the way, Fitzgerald wrote this, so here’s some lines of his on screen in case you forgot.
Now I like the story quite a bit. I don’t think it’s the greatest American novel of the 20th century, but I always enjoyed it, even when I was forced to read it in High School English class. Luhrmann either has done this story a great disservice, or the story wasn’t as good as I remember it being. Then again my girlfriend, who loves the novel and Fitzgerald very much, cried at the end and proclaimed it as her new favorite movie. So there will be some out there who find it entertaining.
The Great Gatsby tries very hard to be a modern classic. Instead it ends up being a confused film that relishes far too much in bombastic visuals and fails to understand the importance of character development. I walked out of the theater very disappointed. Sorry Baz, maybe next time