I’m going to get this one out of the way up front—I have never read The Great Gatsby. I know, I’m sure that makes me a terrible writer and a worse English major. Needless to say, I’m not exactly the most well-read individual in my field. That’s just fine by me, however, and apparently by Baz Luhrmann, as this film was clearly not created for a well-read audience.
For those who are also unaware of the source material’s plot, it follows Nick Carraway, a writer-turned-bond-broker, after his recent move to New York. He reconnects with his cousin and her wealthy husband and soon finds himself an acquaintance of the notoriously enigmatic Jay Gatsby. It is not long, of course, before Carraway finds himself pulled into a chaotic world filled with individuals of high class, potent drugs, scandalous affairs, and far too much liquor. Sounds like the perfect project for Luhrmann, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the stars didn’t quite align. The film is framed by what were two of its more interesting scenes. Typically in a frame narrative, the frame is used to captivate the audience at the beginning and to give the story an additional layer to be uncovered as it progresses. The film’s events, however, never quite did justice to the questions raised by the opening of this frame.
As expected, the film holds much in the way of spectacle. Everything, from the scenes displaying the parties thrown by Gatsby—who is clearly as generous as he is mysterious—to the landscape shots, is done in elaborate over-the-top style. The only problem here is that the story doesn’t seem to call for nearly as much spectacle as the film throws at the viewer. Especially in the first two-thirds of the film, the primary focus appears to be the giant party scenes, which ring a bit hollow.
I felt like the core of the film should not have been the parties themselves, but the lives of the people behind the scenes. This is definitely the point of the story itself, as is made clear to the audience by the end, but far too much time is spent emphasizing the great social events a rich and well-known individual can host. I lost interest well before the film’s halfway mark and barely managed to reengage myself as the final events began to unfold.
There are some interesting themes and motifs in the story as well, and I’m assuming these come directly from the novel. The only issue in their presentation is that Luhrmann slaps the audience in the face with them with pure excess. Every major symbol in the film is repeatedly displayed on-screen and repeatedly interpreted verbally for the viewer’s convenience. We wouldn’t want to risk any subtleties remaining to be discovered upon repeat viewings, after all.
Despite my ranting, the film was by no means bad; it just wasn’t the award-winning product I expected from what appeared to be a perfect match. Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio were excellent in their roles, even if some of the more genuinely interesting characters (such as Elizabeth Debicky’s Jordan Baker) were criminally underdeveloped. The story itself is an engaging one, and I found the film’s ending to be one of the best parts—not just because it was finally over, but because it also left off with some truly thought-provoking themes.
There is certainly a lot to like here, provided that you can make it to the end and look past the shallow spectacle for spectacle’s sake and questionable-at-best soundtrack decisions—I have nothing against Jay-Z, but does 1920s New York really need that many of his songs? If nothing else, I’m now tempted to look into the novel, as this feels like a story much better told without the distractions of this particular film.