I approached The Great Gatsby with a number of questions on my mind.
Would they get the Gatsby-Daisy relationship right? Would they realize the point of the entire novel and film; that you can’t escape who you are; you shouldn’t try to relive the past; and, well, parties aren’t always that great? On a more cinematic note: would it be visually stunning? (and would that amazing anachronistic soundtrack work the magic it should?)
The answer to all of these isn’t quite “no”, and, in fact, it is probably Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan’s Gatsby and Daisy who save it (more on that later). But a distinct sense of anaemia bleeds into this film. It has a taste that could be compared to flavoured water.
The Great Gatsby, for some reason, careers along at a blistering pace. I think the idea is to somehow evoke the Roaring Twenties, but the end result is that the whole film looks like a heightened flashback in a more naturalistic film. Extreme gaudiness and the weird jilting way it is cut (at a speed comparable to Sin City, a film which is meant to watch like an episodic comic book) give it a sort of sickening, disconcerting feeling.
I guess, in a way, it is a flashback. Toby Maguire’s Nick tells the story to us like we’re idiots, recounting it to a therapist (cliché alert). At least he fills the role of a good audience surrogate, though, and I can see why Baz Luhrmann and co. would have been keen to get some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s material into the script, poetic and touching as it is.
Distracting from the potential for any kind of sensitivity, though, is the CGI. I might be wrong, but I don’t remember that much in other of Baz’s movies. I remember Romeo + Juliet seemed largely to rely on inspired costume design and sets, and even the snippets that 8-year-old me remembers from watching Moulin Rouge when I couldn’t get to sleep one night in 2001 aren’t coloured by the overuse of computers.
Have times simply changed? Perhaps. But the weird soft-focus that the CGI imagery ensures doesn’t really lend anything to the party scenes, which are largely disappointing.
And as for the parties… well. They’re a bit like those in The Riot Club but made by someone who didn’t really know what rich people are like, with large parts that stray into bawdy 70s comedy territory. This is par for the course with Baz Luhrmann, so fair play to him, but these scenes simultaneously rely too much on the assumption that somehow, the audience will be shocked or impressed at such heavy drinking. Maybe in the States they would be; personally I hardly remember any scenes where anyone drinks more than a glass of whisky or a couple of champagnes.
Rather than being evocative, the parties end up acting as a kind of pathetic fallacy. There is a fight as the plot turns sour. Like Toby’s narration, it’s not all that subtle.
Neither of those are huge criticisms. The characters get pissed and the contemporary music fades in, so Gatsby’s parties and the intense gathering at Tom’s secret New York apartment are pretty good. Note to self: people in 20s clothes getting drunk makes for way more fun when set to a Kanye and/or Jay-Z soundtrack, and it’s a welcome break from the abomination that is electro swing.
There are a few more stylistic and storytelling quibbles that could be raised: Tom is set up as a dickhead because he is a massive racist (and even looks like Hitler); it’s lazy filmmaking to make us judge him by standards that were commonplace in the 1920s.
Similarly, as happened to Nicole Kidman in the woeful Grace of Monaco, it can be difficult at times to sympathize with how awfully hard things are for Daisy, living in that huge mansion, with every modern convenience at her disposal, spending all her days going to parties and picnics and playing polo or swimming. So what if her husband is unfaithful, really?
These criticisms sort of melt away when Leo finally appears on-screen. He holds the thing together The entire scene, from start to finish, where Gatsby first sees Daisy again is great. Leo and Carey (Oscar winner and nominee respectively) are at their best.
So, too, is the confrontation between Gatsby, Tom and Daisy. It gives the film more purpose and the real conflict that it needs to make the Young-and-Beautiful types into something more than window dressing for nice big houses.
As a side note, there is a nice comparison to be drawn between the moment Leo cracks and almost hits Tom, and the extreme rage and violence of the Driver in the elevator scene in Drive; in both scenes, a single moment of animal fury on the part of the male character loses the character played by Carey Mulligan completely. But here, unlike in Drive, the violence is not intentional.
Ultimately, The Great Gatsby is not a bad movie. But it doesn’t do anything hugely well, either. If you fancy seeing a load of rich people have parties and then feel some personal anguish about it, watch Marie Antoinette. It’s more of a visual fest and isn’t restricted by having a plot.