Everyone who sees The Great Gatsby will likely only need one word to best describe it. It’s a spectacle, through and through. Depending on the context, it can be a compliment or an insult, or somewhere in between.
Whether The Great Gatsby is a spectacle is not up for debate, but whether it’s a good movie or not is another matter altogether.
Baz Luhrmann is a master of visual imagery in his films from Moulin Rouge to Australia, and there’s no one who does pageantry better. But taking a world famous book known for its story and making visuals the main focus seems like a recipe to do a disservice to the original work.
For those of you who slept through AP English in high school, here’s a bit of a Spark Notes catch-up session. In the early 1920s we meet Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a nobody who moves to a small cottage on Long Island and sells bonds as a day job. Across the bay in a fabulous mansion lives his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who is married to an old money multi-millionaire, Tom Buchannan (Joel Edgerton).
Next door to Nick, in an even grander castle, is a man simply known as “Gatsby” to most (Leonardo DiCaprio handsome-ing so hard it hurts). He’s something of a recluse, throwing huge, lavish parties at which he barely makes an appearance, but sees fit to befriend Nick and invite him into his inner circle. His ulterior motives are soon revealed, as he wants to be reunited with Daisy, a long lost love, but Nick also suspects he’s hiding more secrets past a simple a crush. “Where does the money come from?” his revelers and the newspapers ask.
The original work was a commentary about the decline of the American Empire in the ’20s, and aimed to show how hollow the upper class of the country was, which ultimately in part led to the Great Depression. But nearly all of those layers are stripped away for Lurhman’s film vision, and what we have is simply a story about a troubled boy who loves a troubled girl and a few characters who get caught in the middle.
The first half of the film is actually quite glorious. Lurhmann’s vision of the roaring ’20s is probably the most fun we’ve ever seen brought to life, and his efforts to modernize the era are equally entertaining. Gatsby throws insanely over the top parties each and every weekend which Lurhmann makes contemporary by playing Kanye West and Jay-Z tracks synced up with the Charleston. Quite frankly, it’s a blast, and as an audio-visual orgy, Gatsby works quite well.
But as a story? It’s not nearly as compelling as the original book. Despite the lush world in which they inhabit, the characters themselves feel two dimensional and colorless. Maguire’s Nick Carraway is relegated to narrator/fly-on-the-wall status, serving no other purpose but to simply witness and report back the events of what happens with the more interesting characters. Mulligan’s Daisy is less a person and simply a trophy to be wrestled over between Gatsby and Buchannan, struggling to articulate even the basest truths about what she actually desires.
Gatsby himself starts out strong, but ultimate he too becomes paper thin. He’s presented as a mysterious stranger, but once the veil is lifted, we see simply a lost little boy trying to win the affection of a girl who does nothing at all to indicate she’s actually worth his time. He alternates between suave and tongue tied, and though Leonardo DiCaprio puts out a good performance, his character just isn’t up to the caliber of the literature.
The film puts the brakes on about halfway through, which is odd considering that’s when the actual drama starts to ramp up. Gatsby’s great mysterious past is simply told to us with little fanfare, and the love triangle between him, Daisy and Buchannan isn’t nearly as impactful as it should be. There’s a scene in a hotel room where the three of them verbally duke it out (with Carraway as a fly-on-the-wall, of course) that seems like it should be incredibly tense, yet falls flat onscreen. The movie gets its imagery right, but its dramatic beats completely wrong.
And even at nearly two and a half hours, the film still feels short with subcharacters and subplots relegated to mere mentions when they could have enhanced the story. There’s too much emphasis on Daisy and Gatsby when the more interesting story is the new money vs. old money feud and the changing landscape of America. But I guess love stories sell tickets, and historical socioeconomic commentary doesn’t.
2.5 out of 5 stars