Plot: Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, tells of his time in New York during the Jazz Age and meeting the mysterious Jay Gatsby, played by Leonardo Dicaprio. Based on the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by Baz Luhrman.
Review: I’ve been dreading this review. Mostly because I have so much to say and don’t know how to say it. Which is a bit like this movie. It’s all over the place and Baz Luhrman doesn’t seem to understand the story. It’s worth skipping and makes the shitty Robert Redford one look good. Now let’s get to spoilers!
Spoilers: Okay so I have never been the biggest fan of this story. I thought it was too heavy handed and just not that enjoyable outside of the Daisy/Gatsby relationship. But good thing we got Baz Luhrman because he is famous for injecting subtlety into a story.
The film is presented a lot like other Luhrman films: very colorful, very flashy, very loud with an emphasis on technical aspects over story or characterizations. Luhrman has added a framing device of Carraway being in a mental institution and told to write the story that will one day become the Great Gatsby. It seems that the only reason to do this is to add a voice over and to sometimes be able to literally display words from the book on the screen. This is all fine but the problem comes with how he is able to present the story. In this film, we are given Gatsby’s backstory interspersed in the film instead of presented all at the the end. The problem with this is that it’s presented to us before we even see Daisy with Gatsby or gotten to know Gatsby. It not only takes away all the mystery of the character and really ruins the story. Because we haven’t gotten to know Gatsby yet, to hear his story so early it leads one to wonder whether this is real or not. Also in an hour and a half hour film, presenting it so early makes it hard to keep track of later. So by the end when Carraway tells Gatsby, he’s the best of all of them it’s glossed over and doesn’t hold any gravitas. Once we learn Gatsby’s motivations, we are supposed to sympathize with him because he is the one person doing something for someone else. Who has the ability to love, even if the love is unearned. But to know that more from the beginning, it takes all the mystery away from the character and thus there is no reveal so it everything else feels very repetitive.
Another problem is characterization. That is to say the main theme is that the rich are so isolate, so oblivious from the real world or real problems that they aren’t really even capable of human emotions. That’s what sets Gatsby apart. The problem is that the film doesn’t really address this. For example, Tom off-handly mentions his disgust with other races but this is quickly forgotten and in fact frequents and listens to African-American music and clubs. Luhrman’s want to add rap and add different colors to the scenes seems modern and progressive but hurts the character. This is the first time where a little white-washing would have been acceptable, it’s the 20s for good’s sake! The Daisy character is ruined even more! The Great Gatsby isn’t a love story no matter how much Luhrman or Gatsby want it to be. Daisy isn’t supposed to be sympathetic. In this a lot of Daisy’s selfishness is taken out and she seems to care about Gatsby. But that undermines the theme again. If Daisy can experience love then what’s so special about Gatsby. So to make Daisy more likable makes the ending seem more like a shift that comes out of nowhere and leaves the viewer confused. It’s little changes that help prolong the film but don’t help the theme.
I will say this is even worse because the cast is great. Leonardo is both charming and mysterious as he should be and Carey Mulligan is like Fitzgerald’s words come to life. Even Joel Edgerton gives a great performance as Tom. This also leads to the two best scenes. For the me, the best scenes where the first meeting of Daisy and Gastby and the battle of wills between Jay and Tom. It’s funny that these scenes are both done on sets and not in front of green screen and also both deal with dialogue instead of dazzle. It’s here we see what the film could have been as Daisy and Gatsby have great chemistry and you can see both performances before they even speak. It was here that I was into the film. The scene between Jay and Tom is also great. It’s the only real time where Luhrman improves on the story as Gatsby explodes at Tom pointing out his flaws. It really does show difference between the emotionless riches and the driven by emotion Gatsby. It’s a great square off and you see the loss in both Gatsby and Daisy’s emotions. Their performances drive home the points and delivers in ways all the green scenes and rap music could never convey.
I guess at the end of the day the main problem is Luhrman. His need to show extravagance and be visually impressive only really works during the parties. But this is such a small part of the movies, once Gatsby gets Daisy and disappears the film has no more need for Luhrman. Luhrman responds by getting bored and trying to wow you. This is where he really inserts words passing at the scene and slow motion to keep you entertained. The problem is we are invested in the story (or should be) so his visual tricks become distracting. If there was some kind of visual difference between the rich and Gatsby, I could have not only seeing his style work but be amazing! As it is, it’s just there to be there and does nothing in terms in the film. It’s his need to inject style that ruins the film. The best example of this is the phrase “Old Sport.” In the good Tom-Gatsby square down scene, the tip off is that Gatsby using the phrase “Old Sport” implying that he thinks he uses it because that’s what rich people say but they don’t. It’s a great example that no matter how much money Gatsby gets he will even be like them because he isn’t them, he just acts like them. It’s a great metaphor for the whole theme and a powerful scene. The problem is that Luhrman makes DiCaprio so much, it gets to the point of self-parody. I counted at one point that Dicaprio says Old sport three times in the course of two sentence. Luhrman doesn’t think we will understand unless Gatsby uses the phrase ever other word. At the end of the day, the film becomes a perfect counter-metaphor for the novel. The film uses flash, loudness, and color to try and hide how hollow it really is. And that’s too bad because the story is “better than the whole lot of them.”
Trivia: Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCarpio have been friends since childhood.