Weekend Movies: The Great Gatsby

If you've seen Baz Luhrmann's 'Red Curtains Trilogy' (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!) you'll immediately recognize this as a Bazmark production. All the elements are there: zooming cameras, extremely opulent production design and costuming (by Baz's other half, his wife Catherine Martin), hyper editing which frustratingly doesn't fully let you enjoy said opulent production design, anachronistic celebrated song scores, stylized performances from famous actors, and repetitive looping screenplay structure (by Baz's other other half, his writing partner Craig Pearce). That Baz is both the right choice to helm a modern The Great Gatsby and all wrong for it is evidenced in the chasm between the big set pieces and the rest of the movie.

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The director's gift with stunning visuals sells Wealth as Intoxicating Fantasy superbly. The decadent party sequences with their contemporary music go a longer way in illustrating what was so roaring about "The Roaring 20s" better than most period pieces ever have. Baz has always had a flare for onscreen parties and understands how to drop you in among the revellers and leave you dizzy with excitement. Throughout the movie, Baz manages to make the parade of jaw-dropping wealth both funny — as in Gatsby's attempt to pretty up Nick's place with truckloads of flowers "do you think it's too much?" — and unnervingly dramatic, moments afterwards in that same scene and later in a key sequence when the five main characters drive into Manhattan for escape, pre air-conditioning. They remain trapped by wealth, holed up in a luxury hotel with servants chipping away at ice to cool them down. (Shouldn't they have just gone for a swim outside their front doors?)

GatsbyBut Baz' approach only works in fits and starts because he hasn't adjusted it to the contours of the material. There are so many shots and flourishes pulled directly from Moulin Rouge! that The Great Gatsby starts to feel like a gratuitously odd remake of that hallucinatory musical. You half expect Kylie Minogue to pop up as the green fairy in an early drug fueled hotel party.

It's quite strange to see this (subconscious?) near-remake after Baz had professed that he was moving on from the Red Curtain Trilogy with Australia (2008), implying that his much celebrated (and detested) style was not so much his only way of expressing himself but merely a choice meant for those particular films. When Gatsby really needs to investigate the characters, or needs to breathe to make you feel it, it falls apart. Baz just can't stop tricking up the sequences with visual wonder and fireworks (sometimes literally). The driving sequences strike me as the most obnoxious in this regard, with much noise and 3D propulsiveness amounting to absolutely nothing.

One of Gatsby's last visuals is a silhouette of Jay Gatsby in the green light of Daisy's shoreline. It's an arresting emotional image but Baz cuts away from it before it can achieve anything like the final iconic significance it should be aiming for. Daisy's entrance, another example, is teased by billowing white curtains, and just keeps on teasing. We get that she's a vision to Nick, and this luxurious world is bracing new air for him but it starts to feel like parody. Stop billowing, curtains! We totally see you.

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But Daisy is a problem for any filmmaker and actress.

Novels have a much easier time than actors do at selling characters that are more narrated fantasy and ideal than fully realized human beings. Carey Mulligan, a gifted if already over-cast actress, aims high (I love the high affected voice, too fast to feel narcotized but too flat to be get her out of Stepford) but Daisy is still Daisy, more projection than character and how do you embody that? Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is great fun as intimidating sporty Jordan Baker but she isn't given much screentime.

GatsbyThe male principals mostly end at capable with significant obstacles to greatness: Maguire is non-committal as Nick Carraway, never playing the choices the screenplay has made about the character from its odd framing device and Baz & Craig have entirely ignored Nick's (arguable) gayness in the book which is a strange missed-opportunity given the movie's love of modernization; Edgerton is as watchable as ever as the racist bullying Buchanan, but he reads less uppercrust than DiCaprio which makes for some weird friction with the themes and characters as written; DiCaprio, who looks fantastic as Gatsby and who was such a revelation as a young actor, seems to have calcified into an actor with a weirdly limited range of facial expressions – we've literally seen them all before with him.
Not that his dialogue helps. His constant refrain of "Old sport!" which he says HUNDREDS OF TIMES would be tough for any actor to pull off but since Leo gives it virtually no shift in feeling or variety or subtext from scene to scene (Watch Streep's "That's All" symphony from Prada to understand how this is done) it's entirely grating and sure to be mocked in a YouTube super-cut the second this is available on Blu-Ray. 

Though I've spilled hundreds of words detailing the problems with the new Gatsby, I would never trade Baz's Red Curtain Trilogy for the world. I just wish he'd let some of the epic Hollywood classicism he was aiming for in Australia (by most measures his least popular film) sink in to this new film to combat it's Moulin-Rougeyness. Like Gatsby and Carraway, Baz is too enamored by the wealthy leisure class to really see them for who they are. The fatal and most telling decision in this update is the reduction of the role of Myrtle (a game Isla Fisher) to tarty prop. She's nothing more than future roadkill in the scheme of things. In the end, Baz doesn't seem to care that the rich can get away with murder, but he most definitely cares about Gatsby's dreams of wrapping Daisy up in an ever greater cocoon of wealth.

 The Great Gatsby has been filmed once as a noir of sorts (1949), once as a creaky prestige piece (1974) and arrives to us now as a kinetic "Spectacular! Spectacular!" by way of Baz Luhrmann. But F Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel remains, for the movies, an elusive dream as tragically unfulfilled and in this case as shallow as Jay Gatsby's.

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"I've just heard the most shocking thing"…they're totally remaking this again in 30 years!

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Comments

  1. Bollux says

    There is nothing “arguable” about Nick Carraway’s sexuality. He leaves the NYC party with Chester McKee. They go down in a “groaning” elevator with a prominently-noted phallic handle. And after a conspicuous ellipsis in the prose. they are revealed to be looking at McKee’s intimate photography on his bed with him in his underpants.

  2. David C. says

    A terrific movie. The framing device is completely unnecessary. I disagree regarding the quieter scenes and Leo (as well as your assessment of Mulligan). The party scenes are completely overwrought – but fun to look at. They don’t ruin the movie. It isn’t until Gastby comes on scene though that the movie really takes off. DiCaprio is superb. Like Scarlett O’Hara and Vivien Leigh the movies has found its Jay Gatsby. The scene in Nick’s cottage (bringing Gatsby and Daisy together) is fantastic. Sublime. As is the quiet scene at the Plaza before the accident. I agree steering clear of gay Nick was a HUGE misstep. In my eyes that was the only unpardonable sin. The book is the book. No one will ever be able to recreate that magic. It is only in the binding where it will remain forever pulsing like the green light.

  3. AdamK says

    I saw the first 15 minutes or so of Moulin Rouge. That was quite enough of that, thank you. I have no intention of wasting my time on anything remotely similar.

  4. MichaelJ says

    I think Roger’s review is on target, especially the second to last paragraph. From other Luhrmann films and from the previews, I wasn’t expecting much more than a spectacle, so I wasn’t disappointed. The framing device didn’t work. The party scenes seemed flat, with less energy that lehrmann achieved in similar scenes in Moulin Rouge (though I admit wanting very much to go to some parties like Gatsby’s). The best scene was in the Plaza hotelroom, because the actors finally got to do something interesting. I though Leonardo DiCaprio was quite good, though I agree the “Old Sport” thing got tiresome. Toby Maguire was the weak link in the cast, with his deer-caught-in-headlights looks not quite how I’ve always envisioned Nick.

  5. Chaz says

    Regardless of the movies stylistic excesses and conscious anachronisms, I think there has never been nor ever will be an actor more suitable to play the part of Jay Gatz/Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio.

  6. Michael Bedwell says

    Much of these comments stink of herdish “Love to hate Luhrmann” puerility. Any Kinsey 6 who didn’t love the High Camp of “Moulin Rouge” [minus the low camp of the “Like a Virgin” number] should turn in his gay card. And Luhrmann’s live staging of the opera “La Boheme” gave me one of the greatest entertainment experiences of any kind in my long life which includes everything from Babs at her peak to Leontyne.

  7. alex says

    @Michael Bedwell: Did I miss the vote that elected you arbiter of taste for gay people? The notion that someone shouldn’t identify as gay if they don’t like “camp” is laughable…even more so when you say we should only love “High Camp”.

  8. Adam says

    From what I’ve heard, the movie is a mess and does not make sense. It’s also got a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Luhrmann is not particularly gay-friendly as a director, either.

  9. Rick says

    “From what I’ve heard, the movie is a mess and does not make sense”

    That just about sums it up. And it does not even work as spectacle, because the opulent scenes are all of such short duration.

    What a waste.

    And while I have never cared for diCaprio as an actor (and will always think of him as a little boy), I love him as a human being, devoted as he has been to conserving the world’s remaining wildlife.

  10. steve says

    I’m hearing mixed things….I’d like for more people who have actually scene the movie to post comments… turns out some people really love this movie…more people that I would expect considering all the terrible reviews.

  11. says

    This movie blew, not in the good way. I agree with Nathaniel’s review, but I’d be harsher. There is ZERO effective acting in the film. No warmth or effort to understand the emotional complexity of the characters. It’s just empty spectacle. MOULIN ROUGE sucked, too, but the story wasn’t as interesting as THE GREAT GATSBY so the loss wasn’t there. Bedwell’s comment is typical of his I’m-right-and-if-you-disagree-you’re-an-idiot comments that he’s left here forever.

    Yes, you can be gay and not be a Baz fan.

    I did love ROMEO + JULIET, however, so was hoping maybe GATSBY would be for me. It wasn’t.

  12. Rob West says

    Not a fan of the Redford version, Redford was too detached. I liked Baz’s “Romeo and Juliet”. “Moulin Rouge”, was worried about the score but he did well with Romeo, looking forward to seeing it.

  13. PeteNsfo says

    boys, boys…

    tranquila!

    Moulin Rouge was a fantastic, gay, spectacle. Call it camp, or not, it was meant for and is nearly universally loved by the gays. You’re not exactly ‘out of the club’ if you didn’t like it, but c’mon, girls.

    It IS absolutely an iconic modern-gay experience for most, whether you want to own it or not.

    I’m seeing Gatz in 3D tonight, mostly b/c it’s Baz L… I’ll let ‘cha know.

  14. Wilberforce says

    I’m not ashamed to say I never read the book. I can tell from the title that it’s another justification of the status quo posing as criticism. It’s done by shifting attention from real selfishness and corruption to normalizing trivia like love and fabulous parties. It’s an old formula that still works on the clueless masses.

  15. Just_a_guy says

    I was more excited about this Gatsby movie before learning the details. What’s more, if they’ve turned another character straight to “sanitize” it for straight audiences, that honestly makes me want to puke. I refuse to see it.

    @bedwell: ugh, Moulon rouge? Are you kidding me? I literally fell asleep during that movie . I’m also really tired of being expected to like something based on my sexual orientation.

  16. MIke says

    “Rex Reed? Really?????

    Posted by: David C. | May 11, 2013 8:21:58 PM”

    What’s the matter with Rex Reed? As a little tyke of 11-12 in the 70s I used to adore staying up late for Johnny Carson if Rex Reed was scheduled. He wasn’t afraid of the Hollywood publicity machine and said things that everyone at home agreed with which is why Carson always had him on. (“The Exorcist” was a phenomenon and should have been named Best Picture over the milquetoast “The Sting”but the Academy is full of old farts)

  17. JONES says

    @Just_a_guy
    ‘They’ve turned another character straight to “sanitize” it for straight audiences, that honestly makes me want to puke.’

    Couldn’t agree more.
    This is the movie industry formula for whitewashing homosexuality out of everyday existence that fortifies the ‘I know it’s there but I just don’t want to have to deal with it’ attitude.

    If we ask that a gay character is presented as written in film then we’re ‘flaunting’ our sexuality.

    Whitewashing of gays aside, I just don’t feel much like celebrating a ‘gilded class’ in America right now.

  18. Brian in Texas says

    I saw it in 3d last night. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s visually stunning. The score and soundtrack are great. I don’t think it’s worth going to see in theaters unless you see it in 3d. Otherwise just wait for the DVD or HBO release. DiCaprio is perfect in the role of Gatsby. None of the actors dissapointed.

  19. Ted B. (Charging Rhino) says

    The whole plot doesn’t make sense unless you perceive Nick as having a HUGE CRUSH on Jay…otherwise how to explain the endless excusing-away by Nick of Jay’s horrible behavior. You don’t have to make Nick a mincing Nancy in the style of the 20s and 30s movies…just a few wistful, darting looks caught by the camera of Nick “enjoying the view” would have explained a-lot.

  20. Arrant says

    Saw it yesterday. It’s a spectacular, gorgeous, empty mess. That was perhaps inevitable, given that Fitzgerald’s characters are more cyphers than flesh-and-blood people. He’s not known for writing fully believable female characters, but Gatsby is even less of a human being–a mere fantasized construct on which to hang the author’s class criticism. Lurhmann’s giddy over-the-top-of-the-top style further two-dimensionalizes every character well past the point in which the audience could be expected to feel empathy or emotional investment. I’ve seldom cared less whether two obscenely wealthy heterosexuals ultimately mate. And yes, Nick’s absurd idolization of Jay only makes sense if he is gay. Maguire flirted with that notion in his performance, but Luhrmann seemed entirely uninterested in it, so we are left with a handful of close-ups in which NIck gazes at Jay–less with longing than stupified, gob-smacked awe.

  21. Just_a_guy says

    Instead of Gatsby, I watched 42 at the movie theatre this weekend. By contrast, I left 42 feeling fully satisfied. It had emotional depth in even unexpected areas. It demonstrated personal honor gay athlete Patroclus would admire. I’m glad I didn’t bother with the apparent surface glimmer of Luhrmann’s Gatsby.

    I only pray that Jason Collins will show em that we can do it. Meanwhile, I don’t have time for a story of me falling so in love with a straight friend that the story I tell about it all but thoroughly erases my very existence, perspectives, identity, struggles and motives. F*** you, Luhrmann. C’mon. Lurmann, it’s indecent to try to obliterate the existence of a people. Why do you DO that?!

  22. DC Arnold says

    Read the book in high school and reread it in my 30’s, this was a date movie and it pissed off my partner because Hollywood yet again allowed a masterpiece to be bastardized for mass consumption. We left at the 1:20 mark totally dismayed at Moulin Rouge v1.5

  23. says

    If anything, I think Luhrmann amped up Nick’s gayness. The film removed Nick’s relationship with Jordan and made him the only attendant at Gatsby’s funeral. Remember: Gatsby’s dad shows up at the end of the book, at once marveling at and mourning for the luxurious and isolated life his son built for himself. That shot of Nick crying on the steps above the casket was a little too on the nose to ignore in that respect. And the only scene where Nick shows any romantic interest in a female character, he’s basically been drugged and raped. I have a feeling academics will be picking over this movie for years to come in LGBT studies classes.

  24. Boz Latham says

    The framework story, with Nick writing the novel as if it were biographical, is an effective device in that the novel presents him as a frustrated writer, who is in bond sales in a backroom as his day job. His breakdown, leading him to refuge in a sanitarium (which itself bears more than a passing resemblance to Gatsby’s by-then delapidated estate), is a believable reaction over his realization of the ultimate emptiness after the initial razzle-dazszle of someone as pernicious as his cousin Daisy and someone as superficial as Gatsby. Are these and all the other characters worthy of emulation? No, of course not, and except for George Wilson, not even of pity. Nick finally realizes (on his until-then forgotten birthday that ultimately these are average people, stultified by backgrounds that control their present and who are corrupted by that very present, albeit in decidely atypical surroundings. Every scene leads to that conclusion, and the second half of the movie darkens to that drumbeat. This telling of the novel aptly presents that however mysterious and exciting Gatsby appeared (until one got to know him), he was a cardboard character who was not even close to being great: deceptively reinventing his childhood; boasting about the fake medal and commendation he always carried with him for security; falsifying his Oxford credentials; and boasting, among other things, about his custom shirts, custom auto, and Michael Jackson-like Wonderland-type mansion — all the while having fallen in with Meyer Wolfsheim, his pact with the devil, to woo and win someone whom he so blindly saw as an angel). All this, if course, is why the title is ironic and nothing else. This movie and Fitzgerald’s novel are not the nostalgic looks into the past that those who have not read the novel think it is. They reflect all to well that brief, unsupportable time, which happened all to soon again in the me-generation 1980s and the glamorization of the 1% these days. Enjoy this movie (and revisit the novel) as presenting a voluptuous cautionary tale of a humanity who never learns — while vicariously enjoying the ride up to its trainwreck of an ending. And also enjoy the prose that Nick occasionally voices over, especially that of the last paragprah of the novel: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And then one fine morning — so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  25. Elsewhere1010 says

    It’s an interesting argument; I’ve not seen the film yet, but the book ends with Nick deciding to leave the East Coast altogether, rejecting the falseness of the flash lifestyle, its emptiness, and heads back home, to the midwest, to live the rest of his life.

    It’s not clear the Nick has a sexual experience with Mr. McKee; McKee is drunk (and fondling the elevator car’s directional handle) and Nick is drunk, but Fitzgerald only places McKee in bed in his underwear, under the covers, showing Nick his portfolio. The next line has Nick waking up, fully dressed and hung over, in Penn Station. If something did happen, it happened with the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol.

    So… does one leave Long Island and Manhattan in order to live any sort of gay life somewhere in middle America? Or, if we accept Nick’s homosexuality, did he go back home and marry a woman in order to “settle down”?

  26. Rrhain says

    No, Nick isn’t gay. Nick is clearly the author’s avatar. Fitzgerald was a big old phobe and wouldn’t have put himself in as a gay man. Why does Nick do what he does? For precisely the reason the book is bashing you over the head with: Money is a siren with the most alluring call in the world but will destroy you in the end. It’s not because he’s queer for Jay. It’s that he’s dazzled by what wealth and prestige can give you.

    Of course, there’s the fact that the book just isn’t that good. There is no “there” there. It’s all ephemera and style which is part of the reason that it is so difficult to translate into a film: Prose allows you to project your own emotions and meanings into the words, especially when you aren’t really saying very much. _The Great Gatsby_ is exactly like the world it is eviscerating: Nothing but showy surface with no depth of any kind.

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