The Great Gatsby (2013) — Movie Review
I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.
I think it is easy for fans of Fitzgerald’s novel to lambast Baz Luhrman’s interpretation as ruining what stands as a contender for the Great American Novel. I’d like to try and look at the film with as clear eyes as I can, and with the power of hindsight, try and articulate where Luhrman’s vision succeeds and fails.
For as wild as Luhrman’s films are, this wildness is only surface level, while his images are actually quite coherent. The green light, west egg and east egg, the valley of ashes, the sanitorium. All of the locations in the Great Gatsby are given establishing shots and callbacks that help the viewer despite the out of control tone. Much of the lacking coherence of the movie stems from the ambiguities of the themes of Fitzgerald’s novel. Some of these, like Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway literally inside Tom Buchannon’s flat and outside on the street, are an attempt to ground Fitzgerald’s themes onto image. So, if anything, Baz Luhrman is not wild, but rather the opposite, attempting to wrangle and settle the book into visual form. People forget that The Great Gatsby was an experimental work in its day, and was received with middling response. There are certain themes that Luhrman chose in the work and went with, such as desire, drive, and surplus enjoyment, several psychoanalytic features that help to explain Gatsby’s life to his arrival in New York, as well as his infatuation with Daisy. As a result Gatsby can come off occasionally and perhaps unintentionally as either obsessive compulsive, or sociopathic. Luhrman’s Gatsby will undoubtedly be just “a” version of the book, and I suspect that others will take a crack at it as Hollywood has done before. If I was a high school student, and decided to skip reading the book in lieu of just watching the film instead, I would be satisfied with this adaptation, enough to pass the test at least, which is something I cannot always say of adaptations of major works. As coherent as the film is, the final argument between Tom and Jay Gatsby signals towards aggression, which is strangely something I did not see foreshadowed or mentioned explicitly, beyond Tom’s repeated racist intonations about the difference between what he takes to be civilized and uncivilized people. It is a coherent film, but there are snags, so a 4 out of 5 feels appropriate.
Intensity of Effect
The film manages to render many of the heartbreaking psychological elements of Fitzgerald’s novel into spectacle. The two Gatsby parties we see in the film are so wild and adventurous that I actually got a little jealous that I was not there. Some of the darker elements of these parties, like the car accident that occurs outside of Gatsby’s front lawn, is abandoned for the positivity of the party. Much of the drinking that Nick laments of that era is done so wantonly, and the camera is no interested in recording or transmitting the hangover. As much as I love these actors for their longstanding careers, I think Tobey Maguire, Leonardo di Caprio, and Carrey Mulligan, all bring roles that feel more actor than character. I was much more enthusiastic towards Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchannon, who carries so much of the misplaced confidence of the rich, as well as the brash and overly masculine charisma that a cheap girl might go for, that in my opinion he is the standout role. Isla Fischer and Elizabeth Debicki also manage to embed themselves into the 1920s in a way that the rest of the main cast do not. Whether this comes from my preconceived notions of these roles from the novel, or from the film itself, I cannot say. But when Tobey Maguire starts shouting, all I can think of is Spiderman.
Despite knowing the resolution of the film, I felt an incredible amount of tension and anxiety at its climax, which is a good sign for a film. That said, much of the middle of the film, where Gatsby is introducing himself to Nick, as well as courting Daisy, comes off as absurd humor. In the case of his reunion with Daisy at Gatsby’s house, we can feel that this is a man who has so romanticized this superegotistical notion of how the whole event should play out after 5 years, it helps our psychoanalytic themes, but it risks breaking the film loose and wreaking havoc on our idea of Gatsby as a character. Having watched this movie in retrospect, after seeing something like Elvis, I feel as though his sound mixing, his tonal consistency, as well as his ability to simultaneously weave spectacle and historical moment together into something truly fun, was so much better in that film than in Gatsby. The highs in his adaptation are truly high, without the sort of bittersweet pill that we know is coming in the stock market crash. Yet the lows of the film do not struggle with the tragedy beyond pathetic fallacy, of Nick in a sanatorium in the winter, and Gatsby’s funeral is not tragic so much as melodramatic. I truly felt that Elvis’s life was a tragedy, but I could not speak as much to Gatsby. A 3 out of 5 for Intensity of Effect.
The film, rather than address every aspect, leans into the green light as its emphasis. Desire and surplus enjoyment form what Gatsby hopes to use to earn Daisy’s love, but remove the flowers and the pink suit, and we see that Gatsby is nothing, a no one. It is a quintessential American idea, that our personas exist side by side with us in such an alienating way. This has been done time and again, notably in the television show Mad Men. Luhrman explores this with some skill. Nick wanted to be a writer, but abandoned it for Wall Street. Jordan’s vocation as a golfer does not surface all that often, nor does Daisy’s domestic dilettante behavior is performed by Mulligan as a sort of constant drunken indifference. Mulligan does little to assuage Daisy as one of the most hated characters in all of American literature. Gatsby’s complexity as a character in Luhrman’s interpretation stems from a series of paradoxes. Watching di Caprio perform Gatsby in each of these scenes reveals a strange character, one who simultaneously has to be calm and charismatic, while also exploding into passionate rages, or shaking with anxiety. di Caprio manages to pull these off in ways that remind us that it is him. Like Tobey Maguire, I think of his explosive behavior in Revolutionary Road, The Wolf of Wall Street, and so on. I believe that di Caprio’s best performance was with Scorcese’s The Aviator. This Gatsby feels like a bundle of behaviors without a center, which may have been the point. Who Gatsby was may have been a mystery especially to himself. This is Gatsby as the hysteric, where the answer of what they want from him being so unclear because what he has lies in a void, a nothingness. These are aspects of the film I have interpreted for myself, but I do not think the film managed to explore this thoroughly enough. Instead, these behaviors are conceits to progress the film. Fitzgerald’s work is beautifully rendered in immense color kinetic movement, and a brisk pace, with a fusion of older and newer musical genres. But the complexity also invades the characters into wide spectrum performances that dictate their responses rather than respond to them. I think a 2 out of 5 for complexity exists here.
Originality is going to be difficult to unpack. Perhaps Luhrman’s interpretation of the work is rather novel, but it hardly wavers from his usual style. Image and sound swirl in a fluid way in contrast to other dour films of our era. Adapting Gatsby is wholly unoriginal as well, considering that most every American high school ends up reading it as part of their American literature curriculum for 11th grade. It stands, like To Kill a Mockingbird, as an integral part of our canon. The question to ask is, where does the venn diagram of Luhrman’s style and Gatsby’s adaptations across history weave together in the middle to produce something truly original? If I was pressed to answer this question, if someone forced me, only a few things spring to mind. One is the historical context of the film arriving after the great recession of 2008, and Nick Carraway’s stay at a Sanitorium, his thoughts of money, drinking, New York, and Wall Street, are all token of a piece that attempts to connect the two economic downfalls in a way that allows for resonance. Plenty of films and filmmakers took a stab at a Wall Street story in the 2010s. Possibly the best place in the movie we see this is in the way Tom uses his lover Myrtle, and her husband Tom. His methods of manipulation are not just here: each place where Joel Edgerton maneuvers feels grounded in a character who feels as though he owns everything and every moment. He sits where he pleases, goes where he likes, and his demeanor, even when placed in a strange setting like Gatsby’s party, is not one of anxiety, but one of disgust or moral outrage. When he wins over Gatsby, it is truly menacing. His opportunism in denying that he knew Myrtle, in convincing Tom to take care of Gatsby, is to me more the highlight of the film than di Caprio’s Gatsby could ever be. Perhaps this is why, in Elvis, it is the antagonist that plays the role of the narrator of the film. In my opinion, to have your villain overshadow your hero is a weakness, not a strength. The movie is a 2 out of 5 for originality.
A 2.75 out of 5.0 helps to unpack, I hope, the frayed opinions people had about Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. It uses the historical context to a glittering effect, without the sort of weighted tragedy that we hope would dig deeper than melodrama. It is a great time, one soaking in alcohol and with quite an amazing soundtrack. But while it seems to have a passionate look at the source material, its landing feels off, as it tries to settle all the strangeness of the book’s complex characters into adaptation. Seeing the latest adaptation of any complex literary work may cause the viewer to throw one’s hands in the air. Is it even possible, can it be done? In my opinion, such a widespread prior knowledge of Gatsby may have gotten backs into theater seats, but it left them disconcerted. I do like the film; for better and for worse, this is my generation’s Gatsby. A millenial Gatsby who is anxious over lacking the control to fix his life over the course of rowdy economic upheaval. But I think better work will still be done with Gatsby on the big screen in the years to come.