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Review: The Great Gatsby – Not so great

Posted by on May 10, 2013 – 12:01 am

The Great Gatsby‘The book is better than the film’ is a cinematic axiom as old as the movie industry itself, and even though I’ve never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the newest film adaptation of the story shows enough of the book’s actual text on screen that I can say the written words were the only parts of this movie that I truly enjoyed.

Writer/Director Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet (1996) fame brings his modern flare and style to Fitzgerald’s 1925 story of old money versus new money versus no money. This is the fifth time that The Great Gatsby has been translated onto film (the first was a 1926 silent film) and though it is set in the year 1922, this new version has 21st century music (by the likes of Jack White and Florence + The Machine) and state-of-the-art special effects.

For perspective, I’ve never read this book, nor have I seen any of the previous films, but I am aware that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby story is highly regarded as one of the best American novels ever written and I’m familiar with a few quotes from the book that have become part of our culture. The film is narrated by character Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he is writing the story about his friend, Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and as Carraway writes the typed text is often seen on screen as if you were reading the novel as he speaks in voiceover. Again, these book excerpts were my favorite parts of the film as Fitzgerald obviously writes some beautiful and compelling prose – if only the rest of the film was as absorbing.

Nick is a WWI veteran who moves to New York to try his hand at the stock market and he moves into a humble little cottage on Long Island that just happens to be next to the enormous mansion belonging to Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic man that few have ever met, but who is known for holding legendary parties for his rich Long Island neighbors.

Eventually, Nick is invited to one of his neighbor’s lavish parties where he and Gatsby, also a war veteran, become fast friends. It turns out that Gatsby is in love and obsessed with Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who he knew before the war and before becoming wealthy. She lives across the bay from Nick and Gatsby, but is within sight of his mansion.

In Gatsby’s absence, Daisy has married millionaire Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a slimy “old-money” jerk who cheats on his wife with floozy Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), who is married to a poor garage owner, George Wilson (Jason Clarke).

The Great GatsbyGatsby enlists Nick’s help to hook-up again with Daisy, but the eccentric millionaire will only accept rekindling their relationship under what he sees as honorable terms and requires Daisy to disavow her love for Buchanan.

Once Tom becomes aware of Gatsby’s intentions, he uncovers the “great” one’s true past, which is actually more noble that the façade he has been living. Will Gatsby and Daisy get together? Will Tom be put in his place? How will Nick help to bring everything together? You should plan on 143 minutes of tedious melodrama and highbrow party sequences to find these answers.

Now I realize that The Great Gatsby speaks to the decadence of the wealthy and their disrespect and disdain for the poor and I get that there is a lot of symbolism in this movie that lends itself to those themes and is still timely today (maybe even more so); so my nutshell synopsis probably does not give enough credit to the depth of this film’s narrative – but I don’t feel that director Luhrmann created this ambitious project with those abstract points intact either.

No matter what kind of symbolic spin you put on it, I can only handle watching so much rich-people-partying (or anybody partying for that matter) before I lose interest. This movie could easily have been whittled down to two hours or less and it would have been much more palatable. It’s almost as if Luhrmann wanted to drum home the “evils of excess” motif so hard that he intentionally made his film’s running-time exorbitantly long – whether it needed it or not.

The Great GatsbyOne of the reasons I was looking forward to this film is because I love the prohibition era, or at least the way it is typically portrayed in the movies. The cars, the clothes, the snappy dialogue delivery (especially by the strong Mae West styled women) are all a fascinating part of American culture. The Great Gatsby film captures this turbulent time, but in a cartoony kind of way that left me wishing it had been a more straight-forward period piece. The modern music and filmmaking techniques are great, but I would have preferred a more conservative approach that would have been less of a distraction from the story.

The actors in this film are decent enough, but it often felt like they were as unfocused as the floundering direction was, perhaps wondering what was going to be seen on those green screens they were performing in front of. DiCaprio launched his leading man career by starring in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, so maybe he was just too comfortable that the writer/director would pull-off this similar effort to re-envision a classic story. Maguire, who is one of my favorite actors, often looks like a deer caught in the headlights of this out-of-control Rolls Royce.

The screening I saw of The Great Gatsby was in 3D, a format which I typically hate, and this film is no exception. The picture that would have otherwise been a colorful spectacle was too dark and an aggravating distraction from the story. Luhrmann attempts to use the 3D effect and other digital tricks to try to create a modern day Citizen Kane, but the end result is just a muddy mess that made my eyes (and brain) ache.

A lot of this overlong film was laborious to watch and it’s sad because I had high-hopes for enjoying an entertaining period drama. I’m curious to see how fans of the book react to this interpretation of the story – for all I could do was state blankly as this film fell apart. Grade: 5/10

Photos © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures

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