“The Great Gatsby” (2013) Review.
After reading a GQ article predicting the failure of the new Great Gatsby film titled; “Don’t blame Baz Luhrmann: A History of Gatsby’s Bad Reviews” I couldn’t wait to see the film myself and cast my own opinion on the much debated light of whether a remake was necessary, and how it compared to the book.
The article ‘remembers some of the most spiteful write-ups’ of the various versions of Gatsby, and offers opinions on the Luhrmann’s version such as:
“There may be worse movies this summer than The Great Gatsby, but there won’t be a more crushing disappointment,” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, 2013).
“Gatsby’s excess – his house, his clothes, his celebrity guests-is designed to win over his beloved Daisy. Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.” (David Denby, The New Yorker, 2013).
“It’s hard for a man like Luhrmann, whose idea of cinema is rooted in instant gratification (you want it, you got it!), to grasp, let alone translate, the Gatsbyesque notion of longing to be somewhere you can’t be. He’s the anti-Terrence Malick: He makes miracles cheap.” (David Edelstein, New York magazine, 2013).
Having read all of these before going to see the film I felt some sort of challenge was coming my way in reviewing the already much hated on film. Would I hate it too? Or even, shock horror, like it? Although this was playing on my mind, I did feel that I was already on the side of Luhrmann before I sat down. I wanted to prove the critics wrong much like the success of Fitzgerald’s novel has done so today.
What Did I Think?
First impressions were good. I thought it moved smoothly and seamlessly through the narrative from start to finish and I enjoyed Luhrmann’s take on the dishevelled and recovering alcoholic Nick Carraway looking back on events. It was hilarious, tragic and decadent with just the right amount of contemporary appeal for those that the book is unknown to. The wardrobe was quite simply impeccable, and the party scenes were definitely worth donning 3D glasses to feel the glitter and the gold falling around you. The eventful scenes were dramatic, yet not pondered on which mirrored the world that Fitzgerald was trying to depict by slowly fading away and being forgotten about. I believe that this film was a success, and in highlighting areas that have been criticised I wish to show why and how it succeeds.
In GQ’s review of the first British screening of the film; “Not So Great: The litany of problems with Luhrmann’s Gatsby“, Andy Morris produces eight key bullet points. He states; “Gatsby is a sham. Neither an emotionally saturated Baz Luhrmann spectacle nor an elegant literary adaptation, it is unfortunately one of the most shallow and unsatisfying films you’ll see this year”.
Shallow and unsatisfying? Fitzgerald would be rolling in his grave. I can imagine Morris might have had a sleepless night after publishing his article due to being haunted by the great writer’s ghost screaming; “the novel is meant to be shallow and unsatisfying!” Morris has clearly missed the point. The novel leaves the reader feeling helpless and unsatisfied (and is meant to) much like the film does.
Yes, Jay Z isn’t particularly who I had in mind as executive producer, and no, not all of the songs are bang on (no pun intended on Will.I.Am’s contribution ‘Bang Bang’), but if the critics were to put aside their hurt at the soundtrack and distaste in its contemporary take then they might be surprised that it actually works, and works well. The high profile artists who contribute create a hype and buzz of expectation around the soundtrack, yet their songs are used intermittently as snippets and samples. Rarely do we hear the main chorus, but instead we catch a line from a verse that we recognise subtly playing in the background. Jack White’s “Love is Blindness” which is used for the trailer doesn’t even reach its chorus where used in the film. It feels disappointing, like we are not being given what we deserve. The soundtrack feels empty and restricted from us. But wait… Surely this is the point? We long for “Love Is Blindness” to kick in at full tempo but it doesn’t. We feel cheated. But it’s this cheated feeling, this longing for the chorus that is what works. The soundtrack makes us feel like we’re missing out on something which is much like what Fitzgerald means in the novel. We are taking part by seeing the story in all its lavishness, yet we are constantly made to feel like outsiders looking in. The soundtrack is as empty as the characters Fitzgerald creates. The songs never hit the mark, they never take off, they are empty much like the novel. It reinforces and illustrates the immoral characters through music.
There have been critics who have implied that Luhrmann has missed the point in depicting Fitzgerald’s novel. In his defence the film is based on the book. It is not the book. A film cannot possibly embrace all the themes and topics that a literary text can. It is up to the director to choose which aspects he wants to focus on. Surely we would want him to refreshingly interpret the novel and offer a new insight? Does he do it? Well yes he does.
In the book we are shown a lavish, extravagant and inaccessible world which is in constant conflict between influences of old and new money. We see what the poor and insignificant Gatsby has to do to get to where he wants. As a figure of new money we see him gain financial security and prosperity by doing whatever it takes. This theme is transcendent through the decades which the book has lasted and is the main reason why The Great Gatsby is now recognised as a literary success. The ‘All American Dream’ is as much evident in the time that the novel was written as it is today. It echoes the phrase ‘money is power’.
Andy Morris states: “For a film about a man with extraordinary personal drive, Gatsby noticeably sags. How can a film whose promise is so intriguing appear so slow and dull? The main problem is nothing feels like it impacts: the high speed sequences in the car appear to be entirely without peril […], the fireworks feel like CGI and there can rarely be a more chaste tale of debauchery. It is extraordinarily unsexy.”
As for these safe car scenes and unsexiness; surely that’s the point? These characters are presented as invincible. They think that money buys them not only happiness but safe-standing as well. The car scenes are without peril for a reason – the people in them are rich and therefore untouchable. Not at one point are we scared for them. It is after all a fantasy. We again feel detached from the characters because we know that it isn’t real, yet here we are looking on, and shamefully wanting in. The fact that Luhrmann choses Carey Mulligan to play Daisy Buchanan is the reason for the so called unsexiness. The power of love is what Gatsby clings on to. That not everyone will find it sexy is powerful because again, it doesn’t make us feel a part of it. The love is clearly much stronger than a physical connection. We are kept watching from the sideline, and Luhrmann knows it.
To continue with Mulligan, Morris suggests that; “[T]he performances as a whole are a little uneven. Carey Mulligan in particular is given very little to do other than sniffle.” I refer you to a quote in the novel where Daisy speaks of her daughter; ‘I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ Surely Mulligan’s part in the film embodies this quote? Her character lacks personality on purpose. She is an embodiment of old money in the novel, and she is the same in the film. Mulligan plays the character Luhrmann wants her to with pin-point accuracy. She is constantly played down by both her husband, Tom, and Gatsby like she’s a mere doll. She isn’t trusted to make a decision or speak her mind because she can’t. She is a fool.
The best performance by far is DiCaprio’s however. It’s faultless. From the beginning where we eagerly anticipate seeing his face but are denied it, his character is built up and up. When we finally see him DiCaprio is a knock-out. Not only does he hold that cool manner and magical smile which is so intoxicating to Nick Carraway, he does it while looking like he ‘could have killed a man’ at the same time. Perhaps his performance isn’t as sinister and scary as his last in “Django Unchained”, yet he adds unknown depth and layers to an already complex character with confidence and panache.
From the various criticism that I have read, Gatsby is said to have been a ‘sag’ and missed the mark. Yet for me, that is the whole essence of the novel. Everyone sags and misses the mark in the novel. Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Wolfsheim and our faithful narrator Nick Carraway all miss the mark because they don’t demonstrate human morality. Every one of them does something that is inexplicable because they aren’t fuelled by human instincts. They are fuelled by money. Even Nick, who is the poorest of the lot, cannot fight the power of money, he never jumps in and tries to help because he knows he is powerless against it. Everyone is corrupt. The film does a perfect job at showing us this corruptness by moving on before we can dwell on any of the events. The story just continues. A quote from the novel says of the Buchanans; “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”. Luhrmann takes this metaphorically and makes it ring true. He takes The Great Gatsby, smashes it up and leaves us to deal with it, and that is why he succeeds. He taints the film with contemporary pop culture and disjoints ideas of the 1920s with the soundtrack. But he is doing what the characters do in the novel. They behave immorally. He is Baz Buchanan. He takes the novel, smashes it up, and leaves us to pick up the pieces. He does what the novel does to us. The film from start to finish is a metaphor for Fitzgerald’s characters. We are left feeling like we have been looking in with no way to change or alter what happens. We are made to feel helpless like those without money do. We are made to want to lead the characters’ flamboyant lifestyles even though we know that we won’t be happy. This is Luhrmann’s doing and for that reason, the film is a roaring success!
© Sam Ramsey and Sam Ramsey Writing, 2013. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sam Ramsey and Sam Ramsey Writing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.