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The Great Gatsby Review: Spectacle, Spectacle

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | May 10, 2013 | Comments ()


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If there's a thread connecting Baz Luhrmann's films, it's the idea of suffering a loss in the middle of apparent gain. His films are ostentatious and visually explosive, but they are those things to the degree that Luhrmann can play them off stories about sadness and disillusion and the inevitable suffering that unites humanity. His kinetic take on Romeo + Juliet is remembered for launching Leonardo DiCaprio to new teen idol heights, but it's also a story rooted in fear and insecurity. Moulin Rouge had moments of splendor that cemented Luhrmann's modern style -- frenetic, unyielding, and unafraid to cartoonishly mix CGI and real people -- but the film used those tools in the service of a story about heartbreak. Even the dismal Australia dealt with the tension in scope between desires and reality. You get the idea by now: big spectacle, big setbacks. Given all that, it's no wonder Luhrmann found himself directing and co-writing an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The story's Roaring Twenties backdrop is a perfect excuse for Luhrmann to bring his penchant for achronological reinvention to one of the first great American novels, and the inherent themes of loss and discord had to have looked like a good fit on paper.

Yet for all its nods toward opulence and its trappings, Luhrmann's latest film is missing the boldness that defined his earlier work. There's a curiously uneasy quality about the film, an insecure deference to the source material that translates as lack of direction or motive on screen. Adaptations of novels are always going to be different than the original. Psychologically nuanced texts that create specific experiences for each reader are never going to be the same as visual versions that lock the story to specific images. Yet Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby is schizophrenic, in one moment resting happily in its own universe and in the next doing everything it can to drag the book into the theater. For instance: the novel features some of the most famous prose in modern American lit, and Luhrmann doesn't want any of it to go to waste. As such, he not only relies heavily on voice-over narration, but he actually establishes a narrative framework that has the main character writing a book about his story. It's not just narration, it's recitation. On top of that, some of the narration occasionally wafts across the screen in scratchy type, as if Luhrmann wants to get extra credit for citing certain lines. The result is that the film doesn't feel like an adaptation because it doesn't feel like anything. It's not a work that stands on its own, and it's certainly not one that rises to meet Luhrmann's potential. It's a weak, transient film, a disappointing story about disappointments.

It's also uncomfortably similar to Moulin Rouge, one of the many things that makes the film feel like a copy of Luhrmann's better ideas. That film unfolded as a work written by a sad, bearded man reflecting on the love he'd lost, and The Great Gatsby is the same. The narrator and author this time is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who's drying out at a sanitarium while getting his thoughts together and working with a therapist to come to peace with the events of the summer of 1922. Nick keeps a journal in which he writes the book that will become the film (and also, in our world, Fitzgerald's novel), and soon enough he sets about recounting his adventures. There's something slight and insubstantial about Maguire's presence on screen in anything, and he's similarly drifty here. As a narrator, he's impossibly mannered, running an unconvincing northeastern drawl through Fitzgerald's lines in a way that never stops feeling artificial and underscores the film's general inability to sell itself. Luhrmann keeps the (often literal) fireworks going for the first act, though, as Nick, a bond trader living on Long Island, finds himself drawn into society life. Nick lives next door to the elusive Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), reclusive owner of a mansion that always has a party going on, and across a small bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). It's Tom and Daisy's poisoned marriage that ushers Nick into the broader world of privileged misdeeds, as one afternoon Tom whisks him away to a junky apartment in the city where they drink and carouse with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), Tom's mistress, and a few other hangers-on. This low-rent party sequence feels like a real Luhrmann moment: sweaty and chaotic, shot through with nine kinds of music and the fluttery terror of acknowledging the sex in the room. For a few moments, everything actually syncs up.

The film keeps slipping, though. Luhrmann knows what he's good at: visual pomp and heated confrontation. It's getting from rock to rock across the river that he loses his footing. Before long, Nick attends a party at Gatsby's, and Luhrmann's gift for spectacle turns the whole thing into a perfect bacchanal of booze and hip-hop that pivots into light shows and Gershwin when Gatsby himself shows up. Once Gatsby reveals his real motives to Nick, though -- Gatsby is Daisy's former love, and his shows are all to try and catch her attention -- the film becomes a repetitive and often dead-aired story about a guy trying to win back his ex. Gatsby's first meeting with Daisy after their time apart is shockingly dull, especially given how good Luhrmann's proved he can be showing two people cautiously and fearfully explore each other's feelings. (He's even done scenes like that with DiCaprio.) In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann's great at fleeting moments that roughly correspond to theme; he's a lot worse at connecting those moments into a story.

Time and again, Luhrmann seems to work against himself. The reliance on Nick's narration isn't just a nod to the book, but a crutch that often renders the film too basic. Prose paints a picture, but so does film, and we rarely need both in tandem. In one instance, Daisy is laughing with Gatsby when she suddenly begins crying, and Nick clumsily narrates that her pensiveness comes from her time away from the man she used to know. Mulligan and DiCaprio are more than capable of acting out that moment. They don't need the neon sign, and neither does the viewer. Ironically, Luhrmann's made a Cliff's Notes version of a novel assigned to high schoolers. Rather than an adaptation, it almost feels like an appendix, a sketched-out version of the story propped up by a distracted director.

Some of Luhrmann's choices work, though. His use of hip-hop and modern covers is right in line with his penchant for rearranging space and time in his own filmic universes, from the pop-heavy Romeo + Juliet to the unironic jukebox of Moulin Rouge. Jay-Z, who serves as executive producer, also produced the soundtrack and has a song in the film, as does Beyonce. Hip-hop's a good choice here, too. So much of the genre is about representing power and wealth when those things aren't there, about tying identity to location, and the vibe fits with Gatsby's shifty backstory and the general air of class-derived ignorance that dooms most of the characters. Similarly, he's got a solid cast in play. DiCaprio, who's making a career out of playing crazy men driven by delusion, is charismatic and sad as Gatsby, while Mulligan is appropriately excited or nervous as needed. Edgerton's a towering brute as Tom, and he and DiCaprio make good enemies as the film builds toward their inevitable war for Daisy. Not for Daisy's affections, either, but Daisy herself. She's a prize to be won here, happy to stare idly as Gatsby and Tom fight for control. The film is about how people use others for their own success or actualization, and Luhrmann makes lot of these scenes (again, the heated confrontations that mirror that loving excess) hit home. The best moment in the film is when Luhrmann dispenses with visual gimmicks and focuses on these two men circling each other like bulls.

Yet it's not enough. Luhrmann's film is loud and expansive, yes, but it's also more than a little thick-headed and afraid of trusting the viewer to pay emotional attention. Nick describes how Gatsby's whole shtick is just a front to win back Daisy, then Gatsby says it again, then again, then we hear it repeated in the narration some more. The green dock light that shines from Tom and Daisy's estate across the bay and into Gatsby's haunted dreams is brought up again and again, its fragile symbolism of loss and longing bludgeoned by a film that would rather be obvious than anything else. It's not that these things aren't good points to make, but that Luhrmann feels so unsure of how to make them. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who was asked in the early 1970s to adapt The Great Gatsby, called the book a mirage, but maybe what he meant is that ideas about yearning are so powerful that it takes a light hand -- an almost invisible touch -- to evoke them without feeling cheap or trite. Luhrmann's still a ringmaster of a certain type of moviemaking, but his touch here is anything but light. He wants to take us across the bay, but instead of beating on against the current, he drowns us in it.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Mel C.

    I think you definitely make some good points (and I agree about the narration), but I left the movie theater feeling really satisfied. I can't remember a time when I anticipated a film more than this one, and for the most part, it lived up to my expectations. It took a bit to get going, but as soon as Jay/Leo appears in that spectacular, old school cinematic moment, I was hooked. Edgerton is an absolutely perfect Tom, and I felt Mulligan brought a lot to her role as Daisy, but as always, Leo stole the show. He obviously put a lot of thought into this character, and it really showed. So many scenes were EXACTLY how I imagined them in my head. Tea at Nick's house could not have been more perfectly shot and acted. Bravo, Baz.

  • Fantastic review, Dan. Cheers

  • Yocean

    I really hated the way the movie gutted Jordan Baker out of it. She and Nick had no relation at all and we had seen or known so little of her that nothing he said to her, especially the last thing he said to her, made any sense. She was deprived of any business to be in the story.

  • This was exactly my reaction to the film - some really, really great scenes, but they only took place when Tobey quit doing the voiceover. Some of the narration was sooooo redundant ("Gatsby was reaching to the light" as Gatsby actually reaches, with his hand, toward the actual light) that it ended up just feeling lazy. But then, DiCaprio and Edgerton really nailed their parts, which made me feel more sympathetic to the piece overall. Still--I wish they'd cut out the narration and just let the actors, you know, act.

  • Swellcat

    Completely agree with you!! DiCaprio played Gatsby perfectly. And Edgerton was the perfect rival. If they hadn't been in this, it would have completely tanked for me.

  • alacrify

    If you're making a movie about the 1920's, please use music from the 1920's (or reasonable facsimiles). He just taught a generation that hip-hop is what they listened to in 1922. Why not some of the jazz or blues that was lighting it up at that time?

  • wonkeythemonkey

    This film clearly isn't meant to be a historical recreation, it's meant to be an emotional recreation. Luhrmann chose to use a soundtrack that, at least in his interpretation, evokes the same feelings in modern audiences that jazz music evoked for 1920s audiences: popular with the kids, misunderstood by the adults, sexy, fun, slightly dangerous, makes you want to dance…

  • firedmyass

    "He just taught a generation that hip-hop is what they listened to in 1922"

    Oh bullSHIT. Very few people are actually that thuddingly stupid.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Exactly! I was 15 years old when Romeo + Juliet came out, and now I know that 16th century Italians listened to Everclear and The Cardigans! This stuff is EDUCATIONAL!

  • alacrify

    Read the reply above yours. Stupid is not the same as ignorant.

  • KV

    How many young people these days like jazz and blues? One of my students is in the college marching band, and he plays trumpet. When I asked him if he liked Dizzy Gillespie, he said he had never heard this name before. Perhaps this was a singular case, but it should give some idea why Luhrmann would be reluctant to use "ancient" music in a movie that was directed toward 20-30 yo demographic.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    I can never wear headscarves like that - the back of my skull seems abnormally flat, and they just slowly creep upwards until they pop off. I think my mother left me lying on my back too much as a baby.
    *calls mom*
    YOU RUINED ME FOR HEADSCARVES!

  • Stellamaris2012

    Baz's best movie will always be Strictly Ballroom. Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias!! Moulin Rouge is a close second...

  • MisterMJ

    I'd like my GG free of Jay-Z please

  • wonkeythemonkey

    How do you feel about CG in your GG?

  • Derreck

    As i said in another thread, Moulin Rouge gave Baz a lifetime pass for me so i'm pretty much guaranteed to see this in the next few hours, but i still enjoyed reading the review.

    and not to be totally shallow--ah, screw it, i'm being shallow. IT LOOKS SO PRETTY.

  • the_wakeful

    Great review. I won't be watching this movie, but I might be buying the soundtrack.

  • "There’s something slight and insubstantial about Maguire’s presence on screen in anything..." Amen.

    Did you get the feeling it's all so over-explained and overdone as a result of trying to appeal to young people who haven't read the book?

  • Haystacks

    I think the problem is that Nick is a cypher, not a fully realized character in the book either. His roll is the observer, and it makes him as the main character problematic.

  • PerpetualIntern

    I've been waiting for this review and torn about going to see it. Thanks for such an insightful piece!

  • KV

    In other words, style over substance. Why did I not see this coming?

  • Just like every movie he makes. Wash, rinse, repeat

  • Lee

    Yep. No surprises here folks.

  • $27019454

    Daniel this is beautifully written. Thanks.

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