The Great Gatsby (2013)

the great gatsby1

Some say the book is always finer than the film adaptation  —that it catapults a reader’s imagination in a way the camera cannot even dream of. I, however, have always defended movies. Like the tired cliché goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, and what is film but a winding string of 24 frames per second? However, I responded to the news of the latest Gatsby adaptation with the former reaction. (Well, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it was more like a tearful outburst that was wildly unbecoming.)

No one, frankly speaking, has ever managed to capture the lyrical subtlety of a Fitzgerald novel. And I wasn’t exactly pleased that Baz Luhrmann (the man who had given us Romeo + Juliet, which still sends a shiver down my spine) to be heading the production. I grumbled away for a few months, but somehow was overcome with the desire to see what exactly I was despising. Perhaps the critic in me knew full well I couldn’t criticise something I hadn’t seen, and so involuntarily wandered into the movie theatre to see what I could slam. The film that greeted me was unsurprising, and yet, it would be wrong of me to say that I hated it entirely.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a beloved piece of American literature, is a novel that really needs no introduction. We all know the story —a universal tale of lost opportunities and showy decadence, set against the backdrop of the roaring 20s. It is in the execution of this setting that the film succeeds, (or fails on every level depending on your point of view).  Under the stylistically excessive hand of Baz Luhrmann, the wild parties of Jay Gatsby work surprisingly well. Personally, I thought those surrealistic explosions of colour and (at times, terribly unfortunate) music were actually oddly effective, and captured the superficial extravagance of the era interestingly. There is, of course, such a thing as way too much, and Luhrmann’s interpretation of the film practically embodies the phrase.

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I’m afraid that seems to be the extent of my quasi-praise for The Great Gatsby.  Any deeper themes from the original novel are hurriedly swept under the carpet, in favour of an endless parade of cinematic acrobatics (mostly consisting of habitual whoooshing and zooming through scenes) that is more than enough to induce a ceaseless wave of nausea. And while the literary perfection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s prose cannot be disputed, Luhrmann’s practice of making his words bound across the screen is more than a little distracting.

Seeing the film on the big screen also magnifies the inexplicably peculiar way in which Nick speaks —a kind of mumbling through gritted teeth. Either Maguire hasn’t quite mastered the art of speech or he’s added an unnecessary quirk to his character. Either way, Nick Carraway’s main function, to tell the tale of Gatsby, is severely compromised. DiCaprio’s fluctuating accent is no consolation either. The way in which he says “old sport” makes you want to punch your fist through a wall.

With all this ranting, (apologies, by the way) you’ll be astonished to find out that there was one scene which I did like. (Perhaps there were more, but the terror-inducing gaudiness probably blotted some out.) It is towards the end;  Carraway and Gatsby are standing on the dock, looking out towards East Egg. Gatsby talks of the past and of the future, he talks of his unbreakable dream for a life with Daisy. For me, this was the truest moment of the entire film. Stripped of the garish decorations which Luhrmann so revels in, we discover a quiet honesty, an indestructible and often dangerous hope that runs through both the film and its titular character.

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13 Comments

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  1. I really enjoyed the film and i love Bad Lurhman as a director. The music really made it for me as did the wild scenes. I am currently reading the book so although I can’t see my view changing on e film it may alter my perception if how the classic tale should have been portrayed on the big screen.I did find the “old sport” phrase rather irritating and it seemed very unnatural!

    1. Yes, that “old sport” thing was rather jarring!
      Although I myself do not like The Great Gatsby very much (I’m afraid I just never really warmed to Luhrmann’s style at all) I do see the appeal of the film, and on some level, I think it does work.

      But at the heart of it all, I think The Great Gatsby is a tragedy; it is about a rich man finding only emptiness in the wild decadence that surrounds him, and I do not think this movie really latched on to this central idea (or perhaps Mr. Luhrmann just wanted to go in another direction entirely…I am not entirely sure).

  2. I thought TGG (Luhrmann version) was going to loved or hated. It seemed that there was no way to have a median. Polarity seemed unavoidable.

    Take the casting of Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim. One part of me called it inspired and courageous casting. On the other hand, it was pure marketing. Without Big B, Gatsby doesn’t sell tickets in India. I doubt that many folks on this planet considered Bachchan for the role. I thought of Mandy Patinkin myself.

    The scene you liked, was indeed wonderful. It had something the parties and the overt signs of the Roaring Twenties would never have – and that was hope.

  3. I didn’t entirely hate the movie either, though I could find a few more things to praise. I did like the way they framed the main story with Nick Carraway’s stay in the sanatorium. It gives the movie an identity–it makes it the story of the enervation following all the wild parties and tragedies. They could have done more with this (perhaps they could have swapped out a few of the party scenes for additional scenes in the sanatorium, and really developed the flashback structure that they only imply), but it is an interesting take on the story. Having Nick write a novel version of The Great Gatsby was a little much (though it has the odd effect of placing the events in the novel in the real world. The character Nick presumably gives the events their fairytale-like structure as he attempts to understand them.), and placing the words on the screen really just seems unnecessary (though I’m already trying to form a defense for it). I was less impressed with the movie’s treatment of the novel’s themes (all that aspirtation and American Dream stuff apparently wasn’t very important to the filmmakers). They turn much of the film into a traditional romance, which simply doesn’t work. The scene where Daisy tries to call Gatsby practically ruined the movie for me. It made me feel a little better about the people in this story, but that was the wrong direction to have gone in. The novel (and I believe much of the film) is the story of one man’s reaction to the cold, empty people around him, not a tragedy about two lovers. The fact that Daisy seems to care nothing for Gatsby might have been the final straw that broke the character of Nick (and would have factored into the filmmakers’ decision to make him the major focus of the movie). They go for a more traditional tragic ending, and that doesn’t seem to fit the story they are telling.

    1. I like your interpretation of the sanitarium structure; to be perfectly frank, I had pretty much forgotten about it! I agree completely about the presentation of the novel’s themes; Fitzgerald’s work is essentially about the emptiness of the decadence that surrounds a man —the film not only seems to miss this idea but actually kind of revels in the meaningless luxury.

  4. I quite enjoyed the film for what it was- I’m certain subtlety is not in Baz’s arsenal of tools as a film maker. He really needs to find material that suits his loud, in-your-face style. Moulin Rouge was a perfect fit and I think his best film. Thank goodness he never made his Alexander biopic. The music alone would likely have been enough to send me into a tailspin.

    1. Agreed. Although it can be a little overwhelming at times, the fact that he actually has a distinctive and unusual style does set Luhrmann apart from many directors today. As for the Alexander movie, I hadn’t actually heard about that! (The mere thought of it though is already sending a shiver down my spine :P)

      1. Alexander dates back a few years. Baz’s version was well into preproduction but got cancelled when Oliver Stones version went into production, it was a bit of a race between the two films. Word had it that DiCaprio would have been his Alexander.

  5. I love Leonardo DiCarpio, but I am totally with you on the “old sport” thing. Also, thanks for the follow and don’t mind me while I wander around your site commenting on years-old posts.

  6. I saw this on television the other night. Could not get through the first 20 minutes. About a year ago I studied the text in one of my many literature courses. It was the second time I’d read the book. Having the book fresher in my mind than before made me dislike this movie version that much more. The music is so anachronistic and it felt like Jay Z was using the soundtrack just to promote his and his wife’s music. I understand all the colors and effects were to give the film the sort of fantastical feel of the roaring 20’s, but I agree, very overdone.

    1. Yes, your comment about the music of “The Great Gatsby” is very true. The great film scores all have the power to transport to another time and place; the soundtrack of “Gatsby” on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie in 2013.

      I guess one could make a case that the pop/rap sound mirrors the shallowness and vulgarity of the brassy 20s… but somehow I don’t think that was quite the effect they were going for :P

  7. I enjoyed the film but think “old sport,” was OVERUSED to the point where it took away from the film itself. I liked the close up work, it made the audience feel as if they were in the story. The decadent extravagance made me feel the hopelessness of the times, the false gaiety. The love affair, the loneliness, the lies and confusion were played out beautifully. I liked the movie and think it was well done.

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