Review: The Great Gatsby

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 to ho-hum reviews, has come over the years to be considered one of the handful of great American novels. Therefore, there’s a certain ring of protection around it that’s been set up by English professors and their ilk to keep it from harm’s way, mostly in film adaptations. There have been six, none of them very good, and the latest, by Baz Luhrmann, continues that streak.

Lurhmann, who is to filmmaking as Gallagher is to comedy, has thrown everything at the screen in his adaptation. He is really one of the worst choices for this material (Michael Bay might be worse–we’d get an explosion then), as the book, only 169 pages of carefully constructed prose, requires someone who is steeped in subtlety, a word Luhrmann doesn’t understand. I can appreciate his attempt–he clearly admires the book, but in his hands it becomes a bombastic and boring spectacle. He may know the words, but he doesn’t know the music.

Speaking of music, I’m one who usually doesn’t care for anachronistic music, and it bristles here. This story is about a particular time–1922, the Jazz Age. There’s not that much jazz in it. We do get Andre 3000, but this is not a story that necessarily works as a cautionary tale about our own time. How about making a movie about these characters in their own time, with her own music? Even when Luhrmann tries to be accurate, he missteps. Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin, heard prominently here, wasn’t composed until two years after the events of the film.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a fellow on the brink of 30 who has moved to New York from the Midwest to become a bond salesman. He rents a house on a shore dotted with mansions in the fictional West Egg, New York (a stand-in for Great Neck). He eventually meets his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio), a vital man who seems to have the perfect life. When Gatsby realizes that Carraway’s cousin is Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives with her husband in old-money East Egg, just across the bay, he asks Carraway to get them together. It seems that the two were in love five years ago, but were interrupted by World War I.

Daisy’s husband, Tom, a former polo star who is now an angry racist, decides to look into his past, especially his relationship with a “gambler” modeled on Arnold Rothstein. Tom is having an affair with the white trash wife of a garage owner in the Valley of Ash, a destitute patch of ground between the green mansions of Long Island and the bustle of New York City. All things will come to a head, and tragedy ensues.

The novel is about a great many things, primarily about the uncanny ability of Americans to reinvent themselves. Gatsby, who comes from a poor farm in North Dakota, has managed to change himself into millionaire and man about town. The book is also about the struggle between the Midwest, where Fitzgerald came from, and the east of New York. But Luhrmann has boiled it down to a romance between Gatsby and Daisy–“It was all for her,” Carraway says late. While Luhrmann’s script gives lip service to the other themes, he does the book a disservice in the telling.

But what about those who don’t care about the book, and have never read it? I saw a lot of teenage girls in the audience, presumably drawn by DiCaprio. What must they have thought of it? Even if I had been taken to my seat from an alien spacecraft, and had no knowledge of the book, I would thought this to be an unpleasant experience. I’ll steal from another critic who says the movie is “spectacle without soul.” It’s brash, loud, garish (I can only imagine how in-your-face it is in 3D) and often quite boring. The party scenes, which Luhrmann must have imagined first, seem inauthentic and an excuse for Luhrmann’s tendency to show off.

There are some good things about the film. The production design is good, especially the way they have used the oculist billboard, which Fitzgerald wrote into the story after seeing the cover design. I also liked most of the acting. Maguire has a difficult part, but he handles it with aplomb, even though Luhrmann makes a major mistake in framing the story from Carraway’s stay in an asylum–not in the book. Luhrmann seems to think that Carraway was Fitzgerald, and assigns him his alcoholism and writing ability, but this is not true. Carraway was his own character, modeled on no one.

I also like DiCaprio. His introduction, when he smiles just as Carraway describes it, is almost breathtaking, and I never didn’t believe him in the part. I was also admiring of Joel Edgerton as Tom. However, as much as I like Carey Mulligan, I didn’t care for her here. Daisy is a tough character to figure out, but certainly she’s not as vapid as Mulligan plays her. When Mulligan, in pre-release interviews, compared Daisy to a Kardashian, I cringed. Sheesh! Must everything have a contemporary comparison? She’s not like a Kardashian, she’s Daisy Buchanan, who has existed for over eighty years.

I really wanted to like this movie, and was pulling for it early, but by the twenty-minute mark a part of me wanted to leave. Luhrmann makes movies for those with ADHD, and I am not that audience. When he does take a breath, and characters talk, the pacing is deadly, and there’s a lot of watch checking. I did like one thing Luhrmann did–when Gatsby meets Daisy for tea he brings a lot of flowers. A lot of flowers.

My grade for The Great Gatsby: D.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. I struggled to format a review in my head that is not a categorical response to each fault critics have found (or, in the case of the soundtrack, seemed predestined to find) which then quickly spirals out of control. The film has not left my mind for more than a few hours since I saw it on Friday. It may be the most perfect (maybe ‘accurate’ is a better descriptor) adaptation I have ever seen.

    There are some criticisms that left me shaking my head wondering if anyone had read the book since high school if at all. Now, I am aware that the mediums are different and should stand independent, which I believe they do, but I think my opinion was greatly enhanced by reading the novel very recently as a near middle aged adult vs. a reluctant teen trying to get a passing grade. Speaking of which I was surprised to see so many young teen (13 or 14 year olds) girls at my showing. I severely underestimated the pull of the nearly 40 Leonardo.

    My perspective was also helped by my love of Baz. His name attached to anything piques my immediate interest and hope (even though Australia was a dud I don’t need to see again). His Romeo+Juliet was the first movie I have ever seen more than twice in the theaters. I saw it 3 Saturdays in a row in 1996 and, after the first showing, my Luhrmann love was cemented.

    But back to Gatsby. My only qualms with the film from a technical perspective is Leo’s ADR during his drive with Nick to meet Meyer Wolfsheim. It happens in many movies to some degree, but it was quite noticeable and lengthy here. Other than that, i had no problems. The minor additions/changes (and the one big one being the Sanitarium framing device) all worked seamlessly. It is a full and complete adaptation as it is.

    The only missing scenes/situations from the book I would have been pleased to see: Daisy doting on her daughter for 5 seconds before dismissing her back to her nanny (she was even more vapid and careless in the novel than she is portrayed here), the budding and blooming romance between Jordan and Nick (which dies just as quickly but is mostly ignored in the film) and Nick’s attempts to get Wolfsheim to Gatsby’s funeral along with Meyer’s petty refusals. I think these would have rounded out Nick’s reactions and Sanitarium stay a little more, but I’m still very happy as it is without them there.

    More to follow

  2. I, too, re-read the book before seeing the movie, and I’ll give you that Luhrmann’s script was faithful, except for the god-awful framing scenes in the asylum (did you really like that?) But though the script was faithful, it’s the execution I found appalling. But I don’t like Luhrmann, and I think a lot of critics see him as a talentless vulgarian. At least I do. But I’m interested in hearing more from you.

  3. Good review. The novel will probably forever, and always will be considered unfilmable, no matter how hard this movie tries to make it work.

  4. I’ll have more time to write in a few hours but I wanted to answer this quickly-

    I actually did like the framing scenes because they flesh out Nick in 3 dimensions vs. the negligent bystander he appears to be in the novel. He’s clearly writing Gatsby’s story but seems mostly unaffected by (and mostly refuses to affect) the affairs (literal & figurative) of the Eggs. The ‘doctor’ character is a little clunky, but it makes perfect sense that Nick would be completely troubled by the events of the summer (including having witnessed 3 freshly & brutally murdered people on/near his 30th birthday). I think a sanitorium visit is quite a logical choice and Maguire sells it well.

    It also provides another reason for narration and helps the erstwhile unfilmable internal monologue come to life on the screen. The screentime was minimal but enough to get the point across.

  5. Where was I?

    I had a few main concerns about the film before I saw it. The first was Australia which was just boring. That’s not a term one usually ascribes to Baz (usually it’s a fast-paced frenetic dizzying hypercut for the ADD crowd), so seeing it bandied about various TGG reviews made me a bit worried. There are some stretches of the short novel which can teeter on tedium, but I never got that feeling while watching.

    The second concern was the music he chose for the film. Baz’s intimate relationship with his soundtracks (especially of the anachronistic type) have been a hallmark of his since the beginning. I loved loved loved the R+J & Moulin Rouge soundtracks, thought the Strictly Ballroom soundtrack was wonderful and have completely forgotten what music there was in Australia. The trailers for TGG gave me great hope for what was to come. Then I listened to the sneak peak of the soundtrack released last week and was decidedly underwhelmed. The music out of time aspect has never bothered me but the Jay-Z involvement did. I don’t know how or why he’s the biggest producer on the planet but I think I can say that I’ve never fully liked any one of his songs that I’ve heard. His “$100 Bills” opens up the soundtrack and turned me right off. will.i.am’s song started off promising and then he opened his mouth. The Beyonce song is OK and Lana Del Rey tries hard but her voice is just not strong enough to carry the weight of her style.

    I was only enamored with one song (Florence + The Machine’s “Over the Love”) and, after listening through the album twice, I stopped. Couple that with various reviews talking about how out-of-place, bombastic & in-your-face the soundtrack felt (to them) and my green light turned red (oh, a Gatsby joke. how quaint). I was shocked to find my fears completely allayed as the movie went on. Every song seemed perfectly placed and not too forefront when it didn’t need to be. My favorite received short shrift and del Rey’s was repeated often, but it all worked for me. I didn’t even mind “$100 Bills” playing underneath the barbershop because it seemed to just fit. And, regardless of when “Rhapsody in Blue” was written, it was the perfect introduction for Gatsby/DiCaprio. I seriously had to smile & chuckle to myself as the horns crescendo-ed and the fireworks went off as he happily offered a drink to Nick while the teen girls behind me gasped in awe. The visuals and the soundtrack were married perfectly. I continually find myself humming various parts of the soundtrack in my head. I’ll have to buy the deluxe version tonight…

    Boredom & music preferences are mostly subjective. Therefore I don’t disparage anyone who claims they were bored at this or that. Heck, I was bored at parts of Iron Man 3, yet was completely riveted for 3+ hours of Meet Joe Black, so I get it. And if someone was really trying to like the melding of the new music with the old style visuals but just didn’t find it working, that’s fine with me. However many people are acting completely surprised that there was a hip hop song (or 5) here. (NOTE: this is not directed at Slim) The music has been plastered all over the trailers for a year and is as good as Baz’s trademark. It seems a little disingenuous to act shocked & chagrined that Bailey’s Lucky Seven wasn’t featured in the film as you (Jane Q Reviewer) would have done. The obituary was already written before the death knell was sounded and strikes me as unfair criticism.

    But to respond to one thing Slim wrote: “How about making a movie about these characters in their own time, with her own music?” It’s been done 4 times before (well, 3, the first one was silent). How about an artist try something new?

    And there I go off into the weeds and make a mess of two simple points. Restraint, where are ye?

  6. My 3rd concern was Tobey Maguire. He did not seem to initially fit the bill for the Nick I had in my head. However, once the Sanitarium (sanitorium?) device was deployed (release the Sanitarium!) he fell into that character completely. I bought Tobey as Nick hook, line & sinker. The rest of the cast completely inhabited their characters as well.

    Most everyone is lavishing praise on the titular character so I don’t need to say much more. DiCaprio *is* Gatsby and while I was afraid his changing accent would be a hindrance it’s actually used to further the deception. Mulligan is Daisy off-the-page for me, as is Debicki as Jordan Baker. Tom Buchanan seemed taller/larger in my mind but Joel Edgerton’s booming voice makes up difference. And I had no problem with an Indian actor playing a Jewish gangster.The cast outperformed my expectations and completed the novel for me. The book was walking around on screen with skin on.

    Catherine Martin deserves another Oscar. You only need to watch one of the behind the scenes clips (but if you’re interested you should watch them all) to understand the great effort and attention to detail she & her team used to bring the clothes and sets to life. Nothing in camera seemed out of place.

    Lurhmann’s direction actually seemed restrained by his usual standards and so I’m surprised to read that some still found it too frenetically paced and hyperactive. And read yet again that other parts were snail-paced boring. The whole thing was imbued with vibrance and adult drama. The humor was there as well, especially in Nick’s living room full of flowers. In the room at the Plaza, with almost no soundtrack accompaniment, the actors took charge and the whole story was subtly laid bare. Baz told the story overtly & covertly in camera and on screen. It is his Gatsby. It turns out that it’s mine as well.

    And also Fitgerald’s granddaughter’s (http://www.forbes.com/sites/maryclairekendall/2013/05/10/loving-gatsby-all-about-living-fitzgerald/) I don’t put much stock in what a distant relative thinks someone would have thought about something, but I link it here only for reference that seems to say that those closest to the author think Baz’s Gatsby is as close to the novel as anyone has ever gotten. On top of that, I think it’s a wonderful film.

  7. Therefore, there’s a certain ring of protection around it that’s been set up by English professors and their ilk to keep it from harm’s way, mostly in film adaptations.

    English professors … and Gone Elsewhere reviewers, apparently. Just saw the film this past Thursday and read this review for the first time, and the protective tone is hard to miss. And forgive me, but criticizing the movie for using “Rhapsody in Blue” strikes me as eye-rollingly pedantic.

    Anyway, I didn’t dislike it as much as I feared, but at the same time, I don’t have any real idea of the novel in my head. I remember having to read it for an English class in high school, but don’t really remember it all that much. So I could mercifully just watch the movie for what it was.

    And although I don’t think it was a disaster, at face value I have to wonder if Luhrmann is a good choice for the material. He seems like such a superficial artist to me, but the material strikes me as being structured as a very heavy critique of the vapidness of our social elites. Luhrmann gives some lip service to this theme (I assume that the line about the Buchanans being “careless people” is straight from the book), but mostly he just films it as a tragic love story. And as far as that goes, DiCaprio and Mulligan are excellent, but it still felt weird to be watching a very shallow adaptation of material that is very obviously decrying this very kind of shallowness. It’s so in love with its own tragicness that it never stops to consider why it’s tragic in the first place, you know? It’s like Baz just takes it at face value that some people die, and love is involved – so it must be tragic! And that’s about as far as the thought behind it seems to go.

    I also thought, somewhat randomly, that Edgerton seemed to be doing an impression of Nick Nolte ca. 1991 or so. In fact, I found it downright uncanny, but that’s probably just me. I didn’t find his portrayal of an old-money snob to be at all credible, but it was amusing nonetheless.

  8. You clearly didn’t read my four-part commentary with copious footnotes (hahahaha)
    And, hey, Catherine Martin did get an Oscar. They got one right

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