The Great Gatsby is an American classic we were all forced to read in the Junior years of our high school. I normally detest the books I’m forced to read, especially the ones I had Junior year, which included “The Scarlet Letter”, a book so boring that I thought I’d rather be reading Eragon… and Eragon sucks worse than getting punched in the nose by Mike Tyson when you have a cold and your nose gets all tender from the mucus. For you literal minded people, that’s what we call a hyperbole, we learned that in English class.
However, Gatsby is actually one of my favorite books I’ve ever been forced to read. Fitzgerald has a gift for elegant language that I have not seen replicated. Since this is an adaptation of something we were all forced to read, there will be spoilers in this review.
In the story, we have a narrator who has little to nothing to do with the story watches this one man try to pursue his only love interest who married another man while he fought World War I. The man comes back as a wealthy gentleman and tries to relive the past he had with this horrible woman.
So, to understand what to expect out of this film, we need some context, so I will look at the other adaptation of the story from the 70s, and Baz Luhrmann’s style as well.
The 70s movie gets all the major plot points in the story and it’s faith to the book is probably akin to the Twilight movies, as in its kinda slavish. The cast was fine, especially putting the legendarily handsome Robert Redford in the role of Gatsby. The movie just had a horrible pace and lacked any sense of connection primarily because the soundtrack is very underwhelming and the shots were boring. It captures the main idea, but sacrifices all the film elements to it.
Now, Baz Luhrmann is known for directing Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet. He has an extreme gift for visual storytelling, beauty and spectacle, often at the expense of coherency, so walking into Gatsby, I knew exactly what to expect. I didn’t see Moulin Rouge! but I found Romeo and Juliet quite entertaining and clever. It looked beautiful, I enjoyed John Leguizamo’s performance so much.
Now, Gatsby maintains that beauty. The sets and shots looks magnificent. The problem is…. that’s all it’s really got going for it. Even though this film is probably the most visually satisfying film I’ve seen since Prometheus and I walked out the the theatre feeling as giddy as a schoolgirl who just got her first kiss, it feels more like a ride at an amusement park than an actual film.
The cast this time is phenomenal, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher, that dude from Zero Dark Thirty, and the biggest star in Bollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the highlights of this film. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I considered Leo had matured and went from being a “meh” actor to a great one. Leo is very capable in this movie and does portray Gatsby’s role as the lone idealist in a cynical world being told by a cynical writer perfectly. The unknown actress who plays Jordan Baker basically does nothing in this film except stand taller than all the male leads.
Now, for my objection. Tobey Maguire, whose constant moping has left us with a nasty reminder of Spider Man 3. The character decides to recall his whole story Catcher in the Rye style to some mental ward in the very beginning. Since this character is only in the story to be a narrator to be stunned by Gatsby and build up the man, Tobey doesn’t do that much damage, but the film tries to show not tell, but an inner monologue doesn’t often translate well into the big screen. The animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns knew that was more of a thing for the written medium.
The fundamental rule of the film medium is “show, don’t tell” however, this film is strange. It does do a lot of showing, the magnificence especially, but all of the plot is told to us through exposition. In other words, he’s showing and telling the wrong things.
As a person who is pretty connected to the book, I will say that it has as much of the story I expected them to have. It’s certainly a lot less than the 70s version. If the 70s version had about 85% of the book’s plot, more than most book adaptations, this one probably has closer to 60%. It has all the main plot points, but smaller things like Jordan Baker’s role in the story is diminished to almost nothing. The child of Tom and Daisy which Gatsby was supposed to meet didn’t appear until the very end either.Baz Luhrmann basically cut exactly what I expected him to cut. So, what did he add? He added some more action. The film is much more kinetic. A great example would be the meeting with Wolfshiem, which in the 70s version was just in a restaurant, but in this version, it was backed by dancing and parties. The Roaring Twenties have completely outshined Gatsby’s story. He also added to the verbal climax of the time by making Gatsby almost hit Tom. He also made an effort to make Daisy more sympathetic, but there’s a large disconnect of emotions in this film. For example, when Myrtle died in this film, I felt nothing whatsoever as opposed to when I read it, I was kinda bummed. Then when Gatsby died in this film, I barely felt anything, where when I read the story, I was quite saddened by the event. Some scenes that were supposed to be majestic just came off as excessive and funny. Gatsby’s introduction literally has fireworks going off in the background while Leo’s like “I am Gatsby”. Then Tobey’s delivery of “I just turned 30 today” was clumsy as hell, making the audience laugh uproariously, probably not what Fitzgerald was going for…. Really, the cast tries their best, but get drowned out by the visuals, and also the soundtrack. Jay-Z is all over this soundtrack, mainly because he’s an executive producer. I feel as if Luhrmann was trying to be avant garde here, but it came off as a bit distracting, and I even like Jay-Z.
I didn’t get to see it in 3D, so I can’t comment on it. If this movie interests you at all, I highly recommend you see it in theaters, because its a very visceral experience, but if you’re wanting a faithful adaptation of the book, its not. If you’re overly attached to the story, you’re not gonna be happy either. However, if you want a good time in a way a film is supposed to be enjoyed, I don’t believe I can say Gatsby should be skipped either. It really depends on how you take book adaptations.I realize this is really wishy washy, so I’ll just say, I liked it, but Leonardo DiCaprio is no Robert Redford, that’s for sure. =/=