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