I’m certain that the first thing you want to know is if I’ve read the book or seen the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The answer is no and no. Considering I wasn’t alive in 1974, that first “no” isn’t really surprising, but the second “no” is a bit surprising. Somehow, I managed to avoid reading the book, which is fairly impressive considering nearly every kid in this country is forced to read it at some point. The reason I’m telling you this is so you know that I had no prior opinion or expectations coming into this year’s remake. Furthermore, based on the previews I saw I was expecting Gatsby to be some mysterious, shady character keeping his wife or girlfriend, Daisy, trapped in a relationship with no escape. While I couldn’t have been more wrong about that (nor was it my fault – the previews make it look that way), I was right in expecting another frenetic, confusing, epileptic film from director Baz Luhrmann.
After watching Luhrmann’s Gatsby, I’m not sure he knew he was directing a movie. I think this goes for all of his movies, which, surprisingly is only five in twenty-one years. Actually, that number might explain why his movies feel the way they do; he just doesn’t spend enough time behind the camera to refine his craft. Gatsby exhibits this as it comes across as a jumble of incomplete components decorated with 3-D, anachronistic music, and Luhrmann’s typical over-the-top visuals. It’s as if he’s a child with a puzzle, but too ADHD to bother putting it together to create a picture that makes sense.
For those of you who don’t already know the story, here’s a quick summary. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an aspiring writer and Wall Street bond trader who moves into a tiny little house between two opulent mansions on Long Island in the early 1920’s. He is also the narrator of the story, told as a recollection of his summer, in which his whole relationship with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes place. Gatsby is a mysterious, filthy rich man fixated on winning back his lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married to an ex-collegiate star athlete, Tom (Joel Edgerton). The story swirls around Gatsby’s extravagant parties – thrown in the hopes Daisy will show up, Tom’s affair with a low-class woman in a poor district – which Daisy knows about, followed by Gatsby and Daisy’s affair and its inevitable, tragic ending. And if you’re pissed about spoilers, you and the three other people who didn’t know how the story ends can try to find that mythical fifth person since I’m no longer a Gatsby virgin.
The main problem is that the book and previous adaptations portray Tom and Daisy as elitist, aloof, rich people who care little for anyone else while their latest incarnations don’t make them out that way. In fact, Lurhmann even includes the famous quote from the book which sums them up: “They were careless people – Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money…” When I heard Nick recite this quote at the end of the film, it completely negated what Luhrmann had given us. Tom gets about halfway there – he’s definitely elitist as he looks down on Gatsby because he’s “new money,” but seems much more conniving, calculating, and abusive than simply careless. Daisy’s even more opposite of that, never seeming to care all that much about money at all. She comes across as a trapped animal, scared to follow her heart for fear of Tom. Luhrmann seemed split between giving his own interpretation and staying true to the book, even to the point of floating lines from the book in script across the screen.
But Daisy and Tom were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disparate characters. Gatsby is supposed to be mysterious and completely in control of himself, yet seems more like a desperate teenager prone to fits of anger. To top it off, Lurhmann seems to want to reveal Gatsby’s secrets, but gets distracted by shiny things and confetti. Gatsby is constantly being interrupted by his butler with calls from random cities, introduces us to his business partner whom we never see again, and makes a very uninspired attempt to bring Nick into his shadowy world, then quickly dismissing the idea. Added to that, the secondary character of Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) – a famous golf player and gossip, and Nick are given so little attention and depth that they are almost unnecessary. While Nick’s purpose seems to be to narrate the story and play friend to Gatsby, Jordan has no purpose other than to show us how tall she is compared to the other actors.
Rounding out the untold stories and half-finished characters is the beginning of the film. It starts with Nick speaking with a therapist who convinces him to write down his experience of that summer. This would have been okay if Luhrmann hadn’t gone out of his way to show us that Nick is an insane asylum. Of course, we never learn why Nick is there or why he is “crazy” and are left to guess at why it even mattered. My guess is that it was a cheap, lazy way to create the device that forces Nick to tell the story. Luhrmann’s inexperience creating narratives is most obvious here as he could have employed any number of more creative ways to have Nick tell the story.
As is usual for Luhrmann’s films, I left the theater unsatisfied. Even the 3-D felt half-baked, as it seemed to exist solely to accentuate the rain scene where Gatsby and Daisy reconnect. And, like every other movie not named Avatar, the 3-D was completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the viewing experience. Had Luhrmann simply picked one course of action and run with it, the movie might have been much better. At the very least, it wouldn’t have felt like a cornucopia threw up all over the screen.
Rating: Ask for five dollars back. As much as I panned it here, it’s simply a mediocre movie that may or may not give you a seizure.