Movies: The Great Gatsby

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Written By: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Warner Bros., 2013
PG-13; 142 min
3.5 stars (out of 5)


I like my men soaking wet and hopelessly in love.

I remember, as so many students do, reading The Great Gatsby and really liking it. (Well, mostly I remember having to write a really long paper about it, and I got an A, so that may have made me like the book a bit more.)

Truthfully, though, when I pictured Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in my mind, oh so many years ago, I'd say Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio are pretty fine fits for the roles. Physically speaking. And because they are friends in real life, it was easy to believe in their friendship on screen as well.

Still, Luhrmann's take on Fitzgerald's novel—while much, much better than many previous attempts (because I remember having to watch that one with Bruce Dern in it those years ago, too, while seated at my desk)—is not perfect. It begins with a very affected narration on the part of Nick (Maguire) that, while it can be partially excused given that Nick is a would-be novelist, draws a bit too much attention to itself in those opening moments of the film. Later, as the story unspools and Nick becomes that writer he longs to be, it's easier to swallow the colorful flourishes and overwrought tone of much of what Nick says, but in those first few minutes . . .

The affectations continue throughout the movie, and one is left to wonder (perhaps we're meant to wonder) how much of what we're seeing and experiencing is only through Nick's bizarre filter. He's a writer, after all, prone to fill in blanks and add color to what otherwise may be a much more mundane story. Is Jay Gatsby the big liar, or is Nick?

But that's another discussion for a different day. Luhrmann is, I think, the ideal director for such a story as Gatsby. Both he and the titular character use spectacle as a substitute for substance. And the viewers are Nick: perpetual observers along for the ride.

I won't bother to say much about the plot; you either had to read this book in your school days or you didn't, you either liked it or you didn't, you either know it or you don't. For those of you looking for the cheater's version, and if Wikipedia is still too complex for you: Jay likes Daisy. Daisy is married to Tom. Nick is Jay's neighbor and Daisy's cousin. So Jay uses a friendship with Nick to facilitate a love affair with Daisy. There's lots more, stuff about Tom and his mistress Myrtle, and big parties, and people getting hit with cars, but Jay's love for Daisy is the core of the story. Though it takes a fair amount of time in this movie to get to that part.

Points for creative ways of getting Fitzgerald's prose into the actual narration, and the original book cover image onto a billboard. Points, too, for making me want Jay to win, making him sympathetic in that way. Yes, even when he's so obsessive that he insists Daisy tell Tom she never loved him. His optimism, which is truly sad (once we know the kind of woman Daisy really is) . . . And his vulnerability at the tea at Nick's house . . . These were done quite well.

But there is much of the movie that is almost inadvertently funny. Too many shooting stars. No, really, there were enough of them that I felt I should have been keeping count. And so much mugging. A fair portion of it is borderline ridiculous, and maybe that's the point, maybe we're seeing it as Nick does, in hindsight, how ridiculous it all was . . . But while the spectacle was fun to watch, the anachronistic use of hip hop music a jazzy-Bazzy twist (of the kind we've come to expect of him) . . . I don't think it's the kind of movie I'd ever need to see more than once. Which is why it gets 3.5 stars.

No comments: