The Great Gatsby (2 1/2 out of 5 Stars)
Director: Baz Lurhman (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Australia)
Written by: Baz Lurhmann, and Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge)
There are two ways to view this film, as an avid fan of literature who read and loved the book, or as film goer who has either never read the book or willing to let the book be manipulated into something different. I am torn. I waited over a week to see the film, and I let the dust of the incredibly negative reviews settle. I asked friends their opinions, and the reviews were mixed from love to hate i figure I had to settle this on my own. What I found was a film that entertained me, but as avid fan of the beautiful novel angered me as well, as though I were a bi-polar film critic.
For me to summarize the film would be an insult, and if you have not read the book as most have you have missed out. For those who do not know the story, the film centers on Nick Carraway (Maguire) who is narrates the story of his time living in West Egg on Long Island. Nick's cottage is right next to the illustrious and elusive Gatsby (DiCaprio) who throws lavish parties almost constantly. As Nick enters the world of privilege through his cousin Daisy (Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Tom was born into money, and he Daisy live in East Egg. As the roaring 20s begin Nick gets dragged through the world of all these people, seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly.
That's as basic theme to this film, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The film is a mixed bag, and the person responsible for all of this is producer, director, and writer Baz Lurhmann. Lurhamann is the central force of gravity within his films. All things come from him, his wife (Catherine Martin) is also a major part of all of his films. Martin did production design on all of his films starting with Strictly Ballroom (1992), and has been a producer since Romeo + Juliet (1996). Lurhmann has also written all of his films with Craig Pearce, except the most atrocious Australia (2008). These three are back, and appear to be the core team behind this modern re-telling of one of the most classic pieces of American literature. The question for many is did they capture this book, and the answer is yes and no.
Let's start with the problems, and that is namely Lurhmann himself who only recently (within the last many years according to his interview) became enamored with this story. Lurhmann looks to be making Gatsby meets Moulin Rouge with a splash of Jay-Z. I love Moulin Rouge, one of my favorite musicals of all time, and there is the element of the tragic love story in both, but they are different tales. Lurhmann's lavish and fun parties mixed with drug trips feel too much like Moulin Rouge, and not like anything new or different. On the good side this makes the movie a little more fun than the 1974 Jack Clayon version, which is a lot more subtle. Lurhmann also needs to focus his direction a little bit more he lets length draw things out, and prevent his stories from being refined works of art.
The script is probably one of the biggest problems. Many of the major motifs of the book are in this film, the whole concept of the 20s, bootlegging, Prohibition, the Jazz Age, and the build up to the Depression. Looking at the haves versus have nots, and old money versus new money was a major part of this book, and some Fitzgerald focused on as though he knew the fall or crash was coming. Fitzgerald and his book were intuitive, and this film proves the theme does transcend time. As financial woes become a major issue today, the film handles this topic well, showing the callous way in which people with money view the world, and the way things may not have changed. While the film does not delve too deep into these issues they are present to make their mark and divide the characters.
The script misses the mark on many of the characters, including Daisy. I do not know if the film made me hate Daisy, but the only reason I did was because well I have read the book, and she is terrible person. Mulligan played her part well enough, but the script from Lurhmann and Pearce made her more into a victim who was being fought over by two selfish men. Tom is so brutish in this film, and he is in the book as well, but it almost becomes an over exaggeration, which forces you to feel sorry for Daisy because she has become a victim in the game between these two men. Daisy is not victim; she is in fact the culprit to her own demise. In the beginning Daisy states "All right...I'm glad it's a girl. And. I hope she's a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." Daisy's quote at the beginning should have signaled this direction for her character, but instead her foolishness becomes more pity.
In order to more closely resemble the book Lurhmann and Pearce used direct quotes from the book. I liked this and thought it worked overall, but when you alter the material in film loses it's steam. It's also a problem when you have Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway the center of the film. Maguire is one of the most wooden actor's out there; he is dry, wooden, and his emotional reactions do not come across as effective. Maguire is the most miscast person in this film; he is not Nick Carraway. This was the biggest problem with the film. All of the elements people are frustrated with could be overlooked, but this role being miscast is a massive problem. The story, and film hinge on Nick more so than Gatsby because Nick is your guide through the world of these deplorable people, but Maguire never sells the words, which Fitzgerald so beautifully put to paper.
One performance the film got right for me was Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Gatsby. Robert Redford portrayed Gatsby well, getting the confidence part down but missing little insecurities and vulnerability. DiCaprio hits these moments out of the park, especially the little obsessions like with the green light on the dock, or making sure his first meeting with Daisy is perfect. DiCaprio is a great actor, and you see the flaws within the character because of his performance. The rest of the cast loses these elements or they become muddled because of some over exaggeration.
I know many people will a problem with the flashy green screen, and the 3-D, but I found these elements to bring this world to life. While I do not always love a lot of green screen or 3-D. I found myself sucked in by the technical aspects of this film. I think this film used 3-D well, and sucked me into the fast paced scenes, the lavish parties, and the journey through all the different worlds. Simon Duggan's cinematography is spell binding, although most of this is reliant of some gorgeous visual effects. Lurhmann's better half Catherine Martin is the star of this film, her production and costume design are some of the best I have seen all year. I want to run out and buy Gatsby's pink suit, and Nick's green cardigan (for sale at Brooks Brothers), they are flawless elements adding to the beauty of the look of this film.
The music within the film can be a distraction at times, but Jay-Z compilation of modern music with a 20s big band style feel, and Craig Armstrong's score help make this some memorable music. Lana Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" is this film's "Come What May" and it's haunting tone sets the tone perfectly for the tragic love story between Daisy and Gatsby.
The music, the cars, the design they all scream 1920s, making these elements work in the film are important. They add to the romanticism of this era, and of J. Gatsby himself. This time period was a build up to the depression, and this book, and film to some extent capture the rise of the self made men to their downfall. I think the film does a good job at tearing away at the illusions of this decade. Were Gatsby and Daisy meant to be, or was their brief foray into love before the War (World War I) something which jaded them. This theme of being jaded runs throughout the film, and book proving some success.
Overall the film is a mixed bag, with a weak screenplay direction, and poor casting. The film is saved by some of the tried and true themes of the book, DiCaprio, and some incredible technical aspects. One of the major problems is that sometimes a classic book is just that a classic, no one will ever be perfectly pleased, and there are elements which will never be just right. I think Gatsby has elements, which work and some which fail, but overall it's an entertaining experience.