This movie is going to drive two different groups of critics and bloggers wild. Half of them will be fighting the battle of Baz Luhrman, is his hyper-stylized approach romantic or headache inducing? The other half will be digging out the papers they wrote on the book in high school, anxious to defend or attack the source material depending of the reaction they had to a book most did not choose to read but were forced to read. Going in, I was not sure of which side on the first point I would take, but I was pretty confident that on the later, I knew where I stood. I read Gatsby twice, once in high school like everyone else and then once just after college. I remember it was one of the few books that I was required to read for an English class that I enjoyed and admired. I don’t recall the paper that I inevitably wrote on it’s themes and language but it was probably pretty average although enthusiastic. It has been more than thirty years since I read it the second time, but I did so because it was one of those books that haunts you and that seems relevant time after time.
My writing skills have probably atrophied since then, despite my work on this blog. Here I write for my pleasure and say what I want. I don’t often go back and rethink my words, I let them spill out onto the internet and hope I am clear and don’t embarrass myself too much. It is a terrible approach to developing as a writer, but it is liberating as a viewer of films. I often express my opinion as if I am having a lengthy monologue with a friend on the movie I just saw. Ideas sometimes come out in a jumble and words might get mangled as much as punctuation does in these posts. I mention all of this because I am going to approach this review the same way I do most movies, despite having thought about the source material in more depth. If you want a literary analysis there will be plenty out there to satisfy. This is a movie blog and Baz Luhrman is a visual artist. The story telling techniques he uses depend on performance and visual images. I thought it was interesting how much he resorted to the narration of Tobey Maguire’s Nick to get a point of view across. This was especially true when he was showing those internal thoughts in pretty obvious ways on screen. It sometimes feels like overkill. While this may sound like a negative comment, in the end, it works quite well and this will be a definative version of the story on screen for a long time to come.
There is a framing device used in the film to justify Nick writing down all of his thoughts and impressions. This seems to me an invention of the director and screen writer. I have no recall of a sanitarium in the original book. This device almost directly copies the technique he used in “Moulin Rouge”. In that film, a lead character is writing a play, here, our third lead is composing notes for therapy that apparently serve as the basis of a novel. Nick Carraway is going to morph into F. Scott Fitzgerald after his treatment. It works quite well in justifying Maguire’s mono-tonal voice to fill in blank spots or highlight ideas that might not be clear. As I wrote earlier however, they use it several times when it is also unnecessary. Nick is much less a cypher of a character as a result, and the feelings he expresses near the end of the story are more meaningful because we hear that inner voice. For the first half an hour of the movie, it is vital to have that voice because the movie is frenetically out of control. The desire to show the jazz age is overwhelming, and the visual techniques to do so are also overwhelming. Characters come in and out quickly and plot points pop up so fast that without that voice it would be confusing and annoying. The whole tone of the movie changes quickly though with one great shot and piece of casting.
When Leonardo DiCaprio looks out at us as the visage of Jay Gatsby for the first time, it is a great example of a movie star moment. His smile and expression are inviting but seem to be contained. There is a mystery in his eyes that is haunting and a bit empty. He looked so much like Robert Redford in that one brief shot that for a moment, i was reminded of the 1974 film which was far less successful and not nearly as well acted. DiCaprio takes over the story, and in spite of the fact that he is something of a mystery, he becomes the most vivid character in the movie. That’s a good thing given the title, we want our Gatsby to be great. For the rest of the film he gives a very solid performance. Sometimes he rests on his good looks and movie star charisma to carry a scene, but when you see his embarrassed behavior at tea at Nick’s with Daisy, you will see a real actor doing the things we want them to do. He makes us feel the rush of love, the anxiousness of awkwardness and the blindness to his own situation that will ultimately be his downfall. Even though the visual pyrotechnics have settled down a bit, Luhrman turns a rainy afternoon tea into a vivid dream with some nightmare qualities that melt away as the sun comes out. It is the most lovey moment of the film, and the one place where we might hope for a happy outcome.
The story is not a happy one however, and the darker elements creep in during a number of sequences. The valley of ashes might as well be a cemetery for all the symbolism and imagery it lays out for us. Gatsby’s parties take on an increasingly distracting tone with the intrusion of guests that don’t fit with the image he wants to portray. Daisy’s husband spouts off about racial superiority and the affair he is having seems more and more ridiculous as the story progresses. Personally, I love the deco motifs and the clothes of the era. The cars are beautiful as are the furniture. Everything in both the Buchanan and Gatsby mansions is over the top, Nick’s rented cottage is the most pleasant set in the whole film but the speakeasies, hotel rooms and gas stations all seem vividly real. The cars never move in a real way however. The director makes them as speedy and quick as a cartoon can get. In fact the movie this film most reminded me of visually was “Speed Racer”. It is so packed with visual extravagance that you may not notice the shallowness of some of the characters. Early on we can see what a delight daisy must have been to the younger Jay Gatsby, but here tentative embrace of his renewed affections is masked by the opulence of the surroundings. Gatsby is blinded by the world he lives in and it is easy to see why as we explore his house, and his closet. Hell, we can almost believe Tom when he proclaims his love for Daisy over all the other dalliances he has had, because the wind in the curtains or the rain on the clothes or the modified visual movements of the cars and characters distract us from the emptiness and meanness that is there. Gatsby’s pink suit goes from being a splendid reminder of the pure heart but flawed man that he is, to the source of a valid criticism by an unworthy competitor.
The final act brings all the visual techniques together with the plot to make the resolution seem so appropriate. There is a horrifying car accident, a flash of yellow or blue automobile, and multiple shots of pearls being scattered on beautiful wooden floors or dusty soiled furniture. The three way phone shot right before the violent aftermath of the hectic preceding night, is a mastery of visual misdirection that tells us that Gatsby’s only friend is not the one he most longed for. Everyone in the movie is cast extremely well. I know I made fun of Maguire’s nasally tone earlier but he looks the awkward young man who is in over his depth. Carey Mulligan is beautiful and vapid and uncertain as Daisy. She is an object of affection that ultimately proves unworthy of Gatsby’s dreams, but she is a vision to dream about. The Wilson’s are played by solid professionals who bring the right amount of sex in the one case and blue collared indignation in the other, to the screen. Joel Edgerton is an actor I have seen in several movies where his character was sympathetic, here he plays the heel Tom Buchanan, not as a monster but as a self entitled manipulator who does have some gifts, even if they are not always admirable. The movie lives or dies though on our acceptance of Gatsby as a hero, even though he has enormous flaws of character. Leonardo DiCaprio works, and he works because he was cast right and he knows how to play the part. I was worried after the opening section of the movie, but in the end “The Great Gatsby” feels to me like a nearly great film because of it’s lead.