The Good Gatsby

May 13, 2013 by

I had very low expectations for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. I find Luhrmann’s style to either be distracting, turn hollow or both, and the thought of him at the helm of a 3D version of an elegant, classic American novel seemed, well, like a total fucking disaster. The first trailer added to this thought, with its beautiful scenery, anachronistic music, zebras partying in pools and stilted line deliveries all piling up together and preparing me for what was sure to be an epic disaster. Cut to movie night…

After passing through the title cards like they were an ornate gateway (instead of a red curtain), the movie opens on the green light, humming and strobing through the theater. It’s a quiet, subtle and impactful opening shot. Then the voice-over kicks in, and we’re introduced to Nick (Tobey Maguire) as he finds therapeutic solace writing about his adventures one summer in West Egg. Nick is recouping, from living life in the fast lane, in a sanitarium.  His doctor suggests writing his feelings, which end up being his observations, but ce la vie. That Luhrmann uses the same framing device he used in Moulin Rouge is completely unnecessary and fails the story a few times, especially when words leap from Nick’s pen and appear on screen, or—like in any flashback—the story is interrupted by the storyteller. What it does hit home though, is this is Luhrmann’s story and will be Luhrmann’s Gatsby using all of his Luhrmann tricks. After a quick introduction to Nick, we’re off again, this time to New York City, circa 1922.

The first 45 minutes of The Great Gatsby are breathlessly entertaining. Luhrmann’s style is perfect for the early scenes. The movie is fun (and funny!), where big style is matched with sets and scenes that need very little exposition or layering. Everything works marvelously, and you believe this adaptation will be a perfect match of source material and style. There’s even a point, when we first meet Gatsby, where it seems Luhrmann is self-consciously parodying his own style. This introduction is laughably awesome, and along with an earlier scene of Nick taking a breather from an afternoon rager, Luhrmann instills hope he’s in complete control of his vision and we’re in for a brilliant experience.

Sadly, we’re not (entirely).

If the beginning is a party, the latter half is the hangover. As the scenes get smaller, the dialogue lengthier and the mood darker, the hollowness creeps. For all the spectacular, the movie stumbles on leaving a mark because it’s constantly derailed by unnecessary excess in the quieter moments. A little ambiguity would have gone a long way, but instead we are told explicitly the billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg represents the eyes of God. Nick’s narration interrupts scenes to over-explain what’s happening. Gatsby’s final scene is heartbreaking (and DiCaprio’s acting spectacular), but then it’s undermined by forcing out a line of dialogue that’s completely unnecessary.

Still, I really enjoyed The Great Gatsby for the highs in the beginning and its faithfulness to a story I love. My initial fears turned out to be misplaced—New York, East and West Egg were captivating, the music evocative and on point, the zebras inflatable, and the acting strong (I especially liked Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan). The Great Gatsby was not the disaster I was expecting, in fact it’s actually a pretty good movie.

468 ad

8 Comments

  1. This sentiment resides at the core of the book, and Luhrmann brings it to the surface in beautiful and often subtle ways even amidst the raucous excess. While Gatsby is obsessed with possessing Daisy, Tom has his affair on the side with Myrtle who lives with her husband George Wilson in the Ash Heaps outside of New York. The Ash Heaps depicted through Luhrmann’s vision are a hellish expanse where all the waste of the rich (the coal that fuels their parties and their luxury lifestyles) smolder with sweat, smoke and dirt. When Tom visits Myrtle in the Ash Heaps during his forays into recreational slumming – it literalizes the “waste culture” that he represents. He literally uses the occupants of the wasteland for his own sexual pleasure and then tosses them aside. Tom and Daisy Buchanan savagely chew up Myrtle and George, use them like so much disposable junk, and leave them dead in the “ash heaps” of their tragic lives. Then, the Buchanans retreat into their money and come out unscathed by the human wreckage they leave in their leisurely wake. Myrtle and Wilson are used like so much junk for entertainment of the wealthy only to have their lives ripped apart and left in the ash heaps.

  2. The set and costume design, as should be expected from a Luhrmann production, is gorgeous, and when late at night during one party the girls splash around the pool at Gatsby’s place with some inflatable zebras, one has a feeling of awe at how many things are going on at once inside the frame. The director was in the mood for indulgence, however, and the party scenes sometimes feel like a bit of a sideshow to the central drama.

Leave a Comment