Film Review: The Great Gatsby

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Baz Luhrmann brings The Great Gatsby to the big screen with a style and visual wonder that is irresistible, even when the story doesn’t connect as firmly as it could.

Based off the “classic” novel, which I have never read, most everyone probably knows some part of this story and the tragic romantic that is Jay Gatsby. Told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a young bonds trader and failed writer, who moves in next door to Mr. Gatsby and his subsequent experience at Gatsby’s wild parties that are the stuff of legend. The man who throws these parties remains mostly a mystery, but when Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (who lives right across the bay from Gatsby), is brought into the fold, Carraway receives the first ever invitation to a Gatsby party. Nick quickly realizes the world of Daisy and Gatsby will not remain separate for long.

Luhrmann is firmly aware of this novel’s place in history and its short length allows him to tell the story mostly in its entirety here. The language, emotion and setting haven’t been touched, but Luhrmann turns the style, music and filmmaking to modern and the results are gorgeous. There’s been a running trend as of late by filmmakers, much to my delight, to update these classic period tales with modern sensibilities, while still remaining faithful to the source material, and many directors have been rather successful at this. Luhrmann is no stranger to this technique, all of his films besides Strictly Ballroom embrace this, and you could put the film on mute and still enjoy it for much of the run time. The visuals are astounding. I could watch a two hour long party scene shot by Luhrmann and the whirlwind opening act, I think intentionally, parallels Moulin Rouge’s opening structure. It felt familiar and like I was in good hands from the get go, even if Tobey Maguire doesn’t really do a whole lot for me as our guide through this whole sequence.

When Gatsby does show up, and oh what an entrance it is, the film’s tone changes gear a bit while never losing its momentum, visual splendor or sense of enjoyment. The old timey ideas of love and romance are sure to make some audiences roll their eyes, and I’m usually one of them, but I was able to roll with it; mostly due to DiCaprio’s fantastic performance as Gatsby. Sure some people will want to blow their brains out if he says “old sport” one more time, but the charm and swagger DiCaprio has as Gatsby is magnetic. He is just as charming when he is bashful around Daisy and DiCaprio runs away with the film; giving the character a tragic touch that is inherent with his ridiculous ideas of hope and love. I wish we got to dig a bit deeper into Gatsby’s darker sides, I think he might not be as nearly sympathetic if we do so, and he would certainly be more interesting if the film was told outside Carraway’s point of view. But DiCaprio still does a fine job of giving us just enough of a look into the many shades of Jay Gatsby and any complaints I have would only improve an already great performance.

The film’s biggest shortcomings, even if I enjoyed most of the performances in the film, is that I never really felt for any of the characters along the way; positive or negatively. “Poor bastard,” was a thought that crossed my mind late in the film, but otherwise I almost always felt at an arms length from the drama. The polite and cordial nature of these “friendships” leave everyone seeming rather stone faced and non-confrontational over a lot of the drama that unfolds among these six individuals and it is hard to feel for a group of people that don’t often react to what’s going on around them. Maguire’s Carraway, Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan and Isla Fisher’s Myrtle all fade into the background rather quickly once Gatsby shows up and even Daisy disappears for a large chunk of the early going. Joel Edgerton plays Tom, Daisy’ husband, and gets a number of moments to shine and does a great job of going toe to toe with Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is also quite good as Daisy, though I think the film doesn’t paint her in as unflattering a light as she is supposed to be according to my informative book readers. This again plays into how I never felt one way or another for anyone in particular, as far as I didn’t hate Tom or Daisy and never felt like Gatsby “just had to” win the girl. This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the film, but I think if Luhrmann let us in just a bit more the film could have taken off to the next level.

The Great Gatsby is the type of beautiful piece of film making that demands to be seen on the big screen and I would add this to the pantheon of films that also demands to be seen in 3D. From the opening title card you can tell that Luhrmann knows how to use the format and it is worth your extra dollars at the box office this weekend. The film will probably resonate emotionally a bit better with the book readers, but this Gatsby virgin (outside a spoiled ending by the girlfriend) still found themselves entertained from start to finish. I look forward to seeing this in theaters again as Luhrmann’s visuals, the 3D and DiCaprio’s performance are all worth the price of admission.

The Great Gatsby is a B

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