You all have before you a stirring indictment of the modern American education system; a high school graduate who has never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. Now, this shouldn’t be so much of a negative reflection on my AP English teachers as it is an issue with the limitations on how much reading you can assign a child before they graduate. Had I dedicated some of my own free time to educating myself to the likes of Lord of the Flies or The Grapes of Wrath I might have been able to flesh out my literary awareness, but all of that went downhill once I discovered how awesome movies were. After all, how can you beat a medium of storytelling that lets you experience character development and eat chicken wings at the same time? In any case, perhaps you can think of this ignorance of mine as a unique opportunity to hear from someone who can’t just brush off the film with the typical manta of someone who’s read the source material; “The book was soooo much better”. Because of this, I will be focusing almost entirely on the film itself during this review and NOT on the comparison with the text that it is pulled from. Luhrman fans will be more than pleased with the director’s latest exercise in opulence, but for many of the rest of you it will be hard to feel any sort of real connection with the flashy, highly-stylized melodrama that dominates The Great Gatsby.
The Plot: 6/10
A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.
I know this is my ignorance talking, but isn’t the primary focus of The Great Gatsby supposed to be materialism? If I were to base my entire understanding of the book’s message on Luhrman’s interpretation, I would have guessed that The Great Gatsby is first and foremost a romance. As a result, I would have been left wondering just what is so “classic” about that romance as a lot of it feels like a slightly elevated version of your typical Soap Opera story arc. The movie focuses too much on the scandal of it all and too little on the more interesting elements of Gatsby’s corruption and rise to power, the latter of which is hinted at in so many scenes yet is never fully confronted in a dramatic way. All of this comes together to make the movie’s two and a half hour run time feel far longer than it actually is.
The Writing: 7/10
The sad thing is, it’s easy to tell from the more transparent scenes of the movie why The Great Gatsby is considered such a great American novel. Nick’s voice-overs (which I am told are largely made up of direct quotations from the text) are beautifully written and often give the film a sort of poignancy that the rest of it never seems able to measure up to. I can’t tell if the characters here are restrained by their respective parts in the book or elevated by them, but whatever the cause the effect is that people on screen just didn’t feel very real.
The worst by far is Daisy, who is given an incredibly central role to the story itself only to spend all of it being tossed around back and forth between the male characters of the film like some sort of doll. If the message of the film is supposed to be that people use material goods to substitute for the feelings that truly drive the emptiness inside them, Daisy’s behavior would almost seem like a ringing endorsement of materialism.
The Acting: 7/10
Whenever the movie really shines, it is a result of one of two things; Luhrman’s flares for visual extravagance or the performances of the leading cast. Despite my frustrations with his character’s fixation on Daisy, I fully acknowledge how great of a job DiCaprio did with the titular role. He takes the sort of raw passion we’ve seen from many of his roles in various shapes and sizes and adds in some of the Howard Hughes-esque eccentricities that he perfected in The Aviator, and I can’t think of many other people who would have been better for the part. Similarly, my issues with Daisy’s character don’t blind me to the fact that Mulligan’s performance is just as admirable as DiCaprio’s. If anything, her trademark innocent sweetness makes her a bit too likable at times and adds to the jarring nature of her developments in the later part of the film.
Now I have never been and likely never will be a fan of Tobey Maguire, and I fully anticipated his presence being the weakest aspect of the movie. For the majority of the movie he’s just as annoying and dorky as ever. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well he fit into the dead-eyed future version of Nick, retelling the entire story a psychiatrist at a mental institution. It seems that for Maguire, the less emotions the better.
As a final note in the acting category, I’d like to tip my hat to Joel Edgerton, who overcomes his slimy role and delivers one of the most surprisingly touching moments of the film in a moment of grief in the third act. Bravo, sir.
The Style: 6/10
When it comes down to it, the biggest determinant of whether you like this movie or not is whether or not you like Baz Luhrman. There are few people who divide critics quite like Mr. Luhrman does, and The Great Gatsby has done nothing to change my position on him. To be fair, there were a lot of things the director did here that I enjoyed and the production value is clearly visible throughout the film. The thing is, my issues with Luhrman stem far more from his preference for melodrama over real drama, and no amount of gorgeous costuming or artful scene changing is enough to make up for that.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the movie’s soundtrack. I actually liked almost all of the music that was used in the film, but the way that music was used just didn’t work for me. In a lot of ways, the 1920’s are a perfect setting for Luhrman’s showmanship in all of their gaudy, disproportionate-wealth-filled glory. When you take all of that and set it to Jay-Z, it just takes you out of the scene in a very unnecessary way. Some of the best uses of music in the film come from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and I can’t help but feel like a similar musical backdrop for the rest of the movie would have been less distracting.
The Verdict: 6.5/10 – Perfectly Adequate
+ Sure to please Luhrman’s fan base
+ Great performances from DiCaprio, Mulligan and Edgerton
– An exasperating amount of focus on scandal and melodrama
– The modernized soundtrack is more distracting than anything
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 7.6/10
The Cinema Monster: 7/10
The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5
Black Sheep Reviews: 3/5
Fast Film Reviews: 2/5
Average: 6.4/10 – Perfectly Adequate