The Great Gatsby (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Great Gatsby (2013)

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Watchful eyeAndrew DISLIKE BannerThe Great Gatsby is one of the Great American novels, telling the story of our countries opulence and callous disregard for other people during the height of the free money jazz age.  It's moralizing can be easily categorized as heavy-handed, and some of the heavier moments make it into this adaptation, but is balanced by F. Scott Fitzgerald's fair view of his characters and considerable talent as an author.  Reading the book is a blunt experience tempered by Fitzgerald's skill.

In almost comical contrast, Baz Luhrmann was the nightmare choice to direct this adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  His previous movies have zero nuance and overblown theatrical styles that sometimes suited their subject, like in Strictly Ballroom or Moulin Rouge, and sometimes were so far off the mark that it inspires unnecessary chuckling.  I understand that his now trademark lack of restraint makes him ideal to recreate the passages of decadence in Gatsby.  But I wonder if anyone thought his style capable of providing meaningful commentary to go along with it.

Strange that we ended up with such a flat movie.  I thought that either Luhrmann's affectations would either give another entertaining wall-to-wall spectacle or a source of endless zippy annoyance.  Luhrmann actually defied my expectation by providing just such a spectacle for the first half of the film and then transitioning to a much quieter piece driven mostly by the performances in the second.  As such, Luhrmann has managed to create two bad films for the price of one with the most tenuous of connections between the two.

Just listen to your favorite club track and stare at this picture for an hour to get a feel for the first part of the film.

Listen to your favorite club track and stare at this picture for an hour to get a feel for the first part of the film.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) gets sucked into the decadence of the jazz age first by Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), the husband of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), as they fill hot rooms with music, booze, and women.  Then Nick finds himself drawn to the loud parties next door hosted by the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man everyone has a story about but no one seems to know.  Gatsby has his eye on Daisy, who he had a relationship with many years ago, and wants to spirit her away from the perpetually drunk and angry Tom.

Almost all the themes of the book are disposed of to focus on the debauchery and the romance.  That's not a bad choice, but Luhrmann cannot balance the two together.  The first hour is a constant assault of glitter and sweat, flapper dresses and headbands, all set to a chaotic mix of old jazz standards and Jay-Z.  The result is less a postmodern critique of opulence in both eras and more a series of tiresome music videos with the same themes and static visuals.  There are only so many times I can watch partygoers disappear and reappear without regard to space and time in any frame without feeling annoyed or weary.

So weary is how I entered the second act where Buhrmann dispenses with much of the glitz and settles into a routine of longing and boredom.  I left with the image of Gatsby and Daisy almost kissing burned into my head because it is one that Buhrmann returns to often.  The ostentatious backgrounds are still present, but the same emotional note is hit repeatedly with some of the worst cyclical dialogue I have heard in years.  These moments, I would like to add, are not present in the novel and are more expansions of moments hinted at.  I understand why because the idea is to beat this doomed romance into the audience, but is ineffective and dull.

Not a single heavy moment goes by without a bad voice-over or onscreen text.

Not a single heavy moment goes by without a bad voice-over or onscreen text.

There are still some moments where Luhrmann seems in sync with both the novel and the film.  He has a perfect visual of the lonely green light that Gatsby can see through the fog on Daisy's dock and the moments of Gatsby and Daisy alone in his mansion are beautifully wistful.  But these moments are fleeting and almost get crushed amongst either the endless party or underlined heavily, especially after the third or fourth time Gatsby is symbolically reaching across into the darkness at Daisy.

I cannot fault the cast for any of this, try as they might to bring some uplift to the material.  Poor DiCaprio, on paper an excellent choice for Gatsby, is saddled with an unnecessary revision making Gatsby something of a slapstick buffoon at times, breaking the wistful romance with bad jokes.  The rest of the cast is good but unremarkable, chosen mostly for their ability to give the right look of tainted innocence that would be better served in a different film.  Only one performer, Elizabeth Debicki as Nick's sometimes squeeze Jordan, is used well and she is barely in the film.  She is the adult that guides the too-idealistic Nick throughout this decadent fantasy land and her commentary, when present, is the cool remedy to Buhrmann's overblown film.  But she is relegated to a background player at most, another puzzling decision considering her larger involvement in the events of the book.

I am not a novel purist when it comes to film adaptations but some thought should have been given to the weaknesses and strengths of the source, especially in the hands of Buhrmann.  In his care the film is a bore, using the same tricks to diminish an effect that was not strong to begin with.  It's a sad accomplishment that his film is emptier than the lives of the people living it.  Perhaps he'll spend a little less on the soundtrack and glitter next time.

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The Great Gatsby - TailThe Great Gatsby (2013)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Screenplay written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I featured your review in a fun debate with Surrender To The Void over on one of my sites.

    • Thank you for the comment, and I’m honored at the inclusion of your debut feature! I posted the link to our Facebook and I’ll be sure to check it out in the future.

  2. Hey great review Andrew but where did everyone else go?

    • Thanks for the comment Nova!

      To your question, life. Ryan has two kids and can’t write as much as he used to (he still rotates the cohost spot on the podcast with me), Danny got tired of new films and wanted to focus on Pre-code Hollywood (and is doing a slam-bang job of that at, and Jacob (as well as Danny) are both occupied with their return to grad school on top of normal work lives.

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