Movie Review: The Great Gatsby
By Matthew Huntley
May 20, 2013

Because they can can can.

There comes a point late in Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby when its human element finally supersedes its presentational one. Without giving away spoilers, it happens after a tragedy and we are reminded, through poignant narration, there is inherent good in people and love remains the most powerful of emotions. The film’s closing message is strong, and had the rest of it been as attentive and immersive as its conclusion, Gatsby might have made for an all-around powerful experience.

Unfortunately, it’s merely just an okay one. An energetic opening and gripping final act bookend a rather dry middle section, which makes up the bulk of the picture. And because the film’s efficacy shows itself too late in the game, it’s not completely worth our time and investment. We find ourselves checking out of the story as the movie lets its style and exuberance run rampant, which consequently overshadow its underlying themes and people, which should really come first.

And yet, the film’s style isn’t something to be taken lightly. Like Lurhmann’s other works (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!), the surface of Gatsby is dazzling, fetching and wonderfully cinematic. But the director succumbs to what many people probably feared he would when choosing to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American story: he gets carried away with the gloss and loses sight of the substance. What should have been a humanistic story turns into a collection of superficial sensations that aren’t enough to cover a nearly two and a half hour runtime. True, there’s always something to look at and hear, but not always something to feel or listen to, and that’s a problem.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the movie goes wrong. After all, its cosmetic elements - cinematography, production design, art direction, special effects - all work splendidly together to induce us in the 1922 era and chaos, and the anachronistic music by Jay Z is surprisingly fitting and lends the film a unique signature, but the problem is there’s just too much of it. Ironically, the movie fails for the same reason the story’s narrator walks away from New York City feeling alone, empty and disgusted by the people with whom he’s formed relationships: there’s too much flavor and not enough soul.

The narrator is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an opportunistic lad in his late 20s who, like many men his age, is well aware of America’s economic boom after World War I. A Yale graduate and war veteran, Carraway is eager to grab a piece of the pie and joins the rat race of selling stocks and bonds at a Wall Street firm. He vows to learn everything there is to know about marketing and investing by shutting himself in a dilapidated house on Long Island in the town of West Egg, where his habitat sits in the looming and overbearing shadow of his next door neighbor’s humungous mansion.

The mansion belongs to one Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious and elusive eccentric known around town for his wild and expensive parties, which he throws on a routine basis, although he never formally invites anybody. Word-of-mouth simply spreads and attracts hundreds of wealthy, high-class socialites to his palatial abode, where they get drunk on alcohol and debauchery. Shortly after moving in, much to his surprise, Nick receives an actual written invitation to Gatsby’s next shindig.

But there’s an ulterior motive to Gatsby’s offer. Nick is the cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Carrie Mulligan), a somewhat self-centered woman who was once the love of Gatsby’s life. She lives across the bay and is now married, rather unhappily, to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a brutish adulterer who’s perfectly happy to keep a mistress named Myrtle (Isla Fisher) but will not hear of his own wife having an affair. Perhaps it’s because of her own misery that Daisy sets Nick up with her good friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a professional golfer and free-loader who’s often more concerned with gossip than anything else. She and Tom lure Nick into a life of hedonism and selfishness, the first time being when Tom takes him to a party at Myrtle’s in the “valley of ashes,” an industrial park in between Long Island and New York City that contains the human and environmental by-products of the American Dream. Overlooking the gray and poverty-stricken town is a run-down billboard of a man with glasses that was, at one time, an advertisement for an oculist but which now serves as the eyes of God, or so many believe.

Gatsby has known for a long time that Daisy lives across from him and confesses his extravagant lifestyle and parties were all part of an elaborate attempt to woo her back. Through Nick, Gatsby arranges to meet with her and the two quickly rekindle their affair, which intertwines all the characters as they’re tested against the highs and lows of love, loyalty and moral values. Not everyone will survive.

More of the plot, I won’t reveal, but odds are you’re familiar with it already because the source material is often considered one of the great American novels. And like the novel, underneath its expensive production, The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story and cautionary tale with a lasting effect. Its messages and themes may be flagrant, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. And while the cast and filmmakers are more than qualified to deliver on them, they take too long and there are too many moments of grandiose, long-winded dialogue. I remember Fitzgerald’s work, which is less than 200 pages, being terse and to the point. Lurhmann’s interpretation, however, is anything but.

Take, for instance, the sequence when Gatsby arranges his meeting with Daisy at Nick’s house. He hires gardeners and decorators to make everything look perfect. The humor and drama that could have been conveyed in just a few minutes of screen time is stretched out over several, so much that we grow weary and begin to lose interest. This is one of many scenes like this, and although the actors are charming and convincing, the pace at which the film traverses its story begins to take its toll, while the design elements are excessive.

The question isn’t whether Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby is a loyal adaptation of Fitzgerald’s time-honored piece, but whether it’s a standalone good movie, one that’s entertaining, introspective, interesting and thoughtful. For the most part, I would say that it’s not. The movie is just too big, loud and lavish for its own good, and just like they do for the characters, these qualities prove to be its downfall. I doubt that was Lurhmann’s ironic intention. In the end, we’re supposed to empathize with the characters feeling unfulfilled, not actually feel that way ourselves.