Review: The Great Gatsby
It’s a love story. That’s the first piece of information you’ll need. The second is that it is directed by Baz Luhrman and stars the irrepressible and multi-faceted Leonardo DiCaprio. So, we have a story about romance, starring one of the premier romance actors of our generation, and directed by the man who gifted life to the outstanding and universally acclaimed Romeo + Juliet. And just like you, I’ve never read the book, and entered the theatre with exactly zero knowledge of what the movie was about or any preconceptions about the way in which it needed to be executed. I was bored, it was a Saturday afternoon and I had a free ticket. I wanted to be entertained.
There is an aura that surrounds Baz’s movies. He made a complete mess of Australia by turning an easy going, relaxed and laid back country in to a spectacle grander than the most lavish of Hollywood weddings. The resulting 3 hours was a bloated testament to his worst quality, his apparent need to do everything ‘larger’. Happily though, this is where The Great Gatsby thrives. I am aware that some critics have panned it, claiming the pomp and ceremony far outweighs any deep and meaningful association with the book and story. I don’t see this as a deterrent however. The movie is a statement of intent, it’s a triumph of staging and cinematography that lends to rather than takes away from the story, a piece worthy of the modern day.
It starts humbly, in a sanatorium, where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) begins detailing his life story and his first encounters with a man called Gatsby. Even at this early stage, it’s made abundantly clear that Carraway is enamoured with the man, a kind of boyish, immature hero worship emerges in the early scenes that builds tension and expectation. Who is this Gatsby? Why is he so mysterious? What qualities does he possess to entrance this young, relatively successful man? Carraway is encouraged to write his story as a form of therapy, and this is the building block that launches the story.
Immediately Luhrman is effervescent in everything he arranges. Even in 2D, on a regular sized movie screen (I lack the funds for 3D glasses), this is an event, an extravaganza that makes absolutely no apologies for its flamboyancy. It’s a technique he adores, and one in which he is extremely adept at. The parties are vivid, the colours blend together to create beautiful scene scapes of vibrant characters, huge dance parties. An overriding sense of optimism, fun, joy pervades the darker side of the alcoholic lifestyle. Yes there are fights, moments of sleaze and scum, but positivity is so strongly enforced that you sit in the theatre and just have fun. It’s exciting. Everyone in the theatre was understandably drawn straight in to this glamorous lifestyle. Incredibly, it was how relatable this lifestyle was. I’m confident no-one in that theatre had ever set foot in something as audaciously extravagant as Gatsby’s mansion, yet we’d all wasted hours of our life dreaming of it, of the wealth and the glitz and the ceremony.
Smashing through the mist of time that surrounded the storyline was the expert soundtrack. Jay-Z’s inclusion as executive producer on the soundtrack is a master stroke. Some critics have slated the choice, claiming his songs stole focus and led to a mushy storyline that was lost amongst the modern day musical numbers that were more at home in the streets of Ibiza rather than a film based on a great historical novel. Let me ask you this: Who the hell cares?! The music is stunning. It’s immediately foreign to the circumstance and yet perfectly matched to it. This weird duality emerges, you know things are taking place 90 years previous, yet Jay-Z’s brand new $100 Bill is booming out at you, Kanye West is screaming, Lana Del Rey is meticulously crooning at 4am. It’s brilliant, and it propels the spectacle to such stratospheric heights it’s impossible not to be drawn in, to revel.
Luhrman can entertain. But can he do justice to this love story? Admittedly, around the halfway mark the fire extinguishes, quite dramatically. The parties drift away, the emergent shallowness is immediately slashed, to be replaced with a new form of optimism. It’s a clunky change, mirrored in Gatsby’s character who transforms from a suave man of mystery to a much more relatable figure. A bumbling everyman, who is madly in love with a girl he doesn’t possess, yet seeks to desperately. I say clunky because it’s basically in a single scene, in Carraway’s house, where his cool and calm exterior slips and reveals the humanity in him. From here the movie strays drastically from its pompadour. We’re treated to a more dramatic retelling of the story, as DiCaprio languishes in his developing paranoia and delusion surrounding the love of his life, Dasey Buchanan. This culminates in a heated scene in the city, in which no backing music plays whatsoever as Gatsby and Dasey’s husband Tom play with each other and vocally fight for her loyalty. Gatsby finally loses control, revealing his over-bearing jealousy and descent in to madness.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite end there, and the film is guilty of running a little too long. A car chase, the death of Tom’s mistress and the eventual death of Gatsby play out over another 45 or so minutes. The length isn’t bad on paper, but it’s too drawn, too dramatic, too much slow motion! At this point I could feel the (admittedly quite dimwitted) audience becoming restless. A couple left, and the Mensa academic behind me complained repeatedly of being bored before he began tearing up his popcorn box and banging on his seat. I was still quite enthralled in the story to be honest, but I can see how the slow down challenged those not gifted with the power to concentrate on something for more than a few cursory minutes.
Admittedly, there are one or two problems with this movie. Firstly is the strained, boring performance by Tobey Maguire as Carraway. His vague sounding voiceovers as he reminisces start to really grate on your ears as the movie progresses. He has this wispy quality, an inherent weakness that really reduces how much you can truly like or get on board with him. His relationship with Gatsby is pure schoolboy fandom. Despite the fact Gatsby clearly is not all he seems, Carraway refuses to believe anything said against the man, and because he is the only one that is providing us any kind of analysis of Gatsby we’re forced in to falling for the lie as well. In actual truth, Gatsby is a liar, an actor, a crafter who has spent his life constructing an image to portray to the world. It’s not until the penultimate scene with Carraway and Gatsby in the mansion that he reveals his true self, and yet despite being lied to for the entire movie, Carraway accepts this new information with verve and excitement, apparently it only confirms his hero worship.
Secondly, the bumbling attempt to use motifs, notably the eyes that watch over the death of the mistress and the green light. The green light is particularly perplexing. It is apparently a symbol of Gatsby’s love for Dasey, and its incessant blinking gives him that sense of hope that Carraway speaks of so admirably. Instead it just feels like it is being forced upon the audience as a blunt tool to denote something that is already being clearly played out in the dialogue. They eyes watching over the coal storage yard I imagine is an image borrowed from the book, yet its significance is never explored or explained.
The love story that develops, however, is quite intricate. It’s interesting to watch Gatsby, the man you believe has it all at his feet and who exudes such control and stately understanding of the world descend in to this delusional madness centred around Dasey. All other characters are really pushed to the back. DiCaprio is such a master that his performance stuns and leaves others in the shadows. Not to say they aren’t adept, but they become bit-part players, even when taking the lead. It actually reminds me quite oddly of The Simpsons episode when Homer becomes Poochie the Dog. One of his suggestions is that whenever Poochie isn’t featured in a scene, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’ That’s what The Great Gatsby feels like. When he isn’t around, he’s being spoken of. When he is there, he is the absolute centre. It’s a sledgehammer approach but it does work to enhance the importance of him as a character. DiCaprio draws the character out of Gatsby and puts it on stark display for us all to interact with. He transcends his wealth and status to become a human, a vulnerable man whose insecurities fuel his over the top lifestyle. When his world is rocked, he retreats, as we all do. When the woman he loves begins slipping away from him, he chases, desperately, as we all have. He is the centrepiece of the movie, and its saving grace.
You will be entertained by this movie if you enter with no preconceptions and view it as what it is: a big budget Hollywood film. It’s not an artsy take on aristocratic society and its place in the modern world. Nor is it a perfect interpretation of the novel. It’s just good fun, and an excellent love story. Go forth and enjoy!