Gatsby. The Great Gatsby.

I never much cared for The Great Gatsby as a novel. I came to understand it better after college and a few re-reads of a friend’s much-marked copy, but I’ve no emotional attachment to it whatsoever.

Luhrmann, on the other hand, I love.

Still, upon seeing the trailers for The Great Gatsby well over a year ago . . . I try to go into everything with an open mind, and I always hope it is going to be good, but I wasn’t sure how this could possibly end well. 

Today, I finally saw the film. And while I laughed in a few places I shouldn’t have, and felt nothing but director’s curiosity at places I think were supposed to move me to some sort of sad emotion, overall I find it as moderately successful as I think a fairly-true-to-book  2013 The Great Gatsby has any right to be.

You likely know the plot, and it’s been out a while (I tried at least three separate times to see it before now, and kept failing) so rather than give a typical review, instead I give you three lists and a section on subtext.

The Middling

Though suffering from a 2008-current overreliance  on orange and teal, and with too much crane work and at least 2 eye-rolling rack focuses, the look was overall quite good. Or should I say, ‘the shots not being choked by CGI were quite good.’ That brings the number down considerably. The scene with Gatsby throwing shirts, the scenes of coal miners, the shots of Nick’s house being overhauled, Gatsby’s nervousness meeting Daisy again, and the scene of Nick losing his party innocence were amongst the best in the film, and they stuck to the basics.

With a central narrator as key as Nick, there must be voiceover. Prose is a key point of the book, and many of the lines are well-known. But this is not the book. Let the actors act, without Nick explaining their emotions.

Luhrmann fell too much in love with his fancy shots. The billboard was great . . . The first and next-to-last time. The other eight were overkill.

Some details seem to have been overlooked, such as the fact Nick’s handwriting looks the same as the psychiatrist’s. Unless you’re trying to say something about he and his writing being his own therapy . . . no, you know what? Even if you were. Cut this out.

The soundtrack wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – the worst songs (have you heard what they did to poor Amy Winehouse!?) were very much backgrounded, and the use of  ‘black’ music, from jazz-age to modern, was very intentional.

Luhrmann definitely says something about race here, but it gets mostly swallowed by spectacle.

The Awful

Maguire’s knowing smirk.

Maguire’s acting. His line readings for voiceover, especially  ‘orgiastic,’ were terrible.

Maguire’s very presence. The fact he is more famous than most of the other actors, while Nick is an outsider, a poor nobody in comparison, makes this a poor casting choice.

The first car scene, with Gatsby wooing Nick. Not only is the dialogue clunky, the editing is awful, and it’s obvious the lines aren’t being said anywhere close to what’s happening on screen.

Gasby calls people ‘old sport.’ WE GET IT.

The racism could have been dropped up top. I understand Luhrmann had Tom spewing ideas of pseudoscientific racism it to make the  ‘black marrying white’ line later not seem out-of-character for Tom. Still, Tom was plenty recognizable as a boor without either of those lines, and (as noted above) the well-meant statements about racism are drowned out.

How did nobody say the following: “Dear Baz, a deal: I’ll let you keep Maguire if you please for the love of all that is holy ditch the typewriter CGI.”

The Good

Edgerton nails it. His Tom is an unadulterated distillation of brutish accomplishment, varnished with faux intellectualism meant to make him feel even more superior. Yet he is still insecure in his masculinity, his marriage, and his status. Edgerton conveys all this in a fairly small amount of screen time. 

DiCaprio kind of is it.

Daisy has always been a flat character, but Mulligan tried her best to plump her to 2D.

The book makes great use of color in its imagery, and the saturation and variance in costume and set design pay homage to that.

Editing (besides the aforementioned car scene) and sound mixing were beautiful as always. There’s a point where Daisy has a sharp intake of breath, something happens, and Jordan lets out her breath, which is really effective, and these little moments are scattered throughout.

The Undertones

In the scene where Nick gets drunk (on top of anti-anxiety meds) for the second time in his life, the camera and sound do a brilliant job of conveying where his mind is, amidst the frivolities and violence around him. Since none of this is used again, and he says he’s only been drunk twice in life, perhaps we are to assume he never attains this state again, despite giant goblet of champagne after tumbler of whiskey. But I’m still unsure exactly what that dissonance is supposed to convey. Part of the book’s strength is Nick as an unreliable narrator. With the film – despite the obnoxious overuse of voiceover – we never get the same impression; we see Gatsby even when Nick is not, those parts line up with what Nick is telling us, thus we understand Nick as fairly objective. This sterilizes the story somewhat, all while amping up the trappings.

Despite seeing four people sit down to dinner, and despite Gatsby and Daisy reuniting in a room literally filled with flowers and cakes, we never see people actually eating, only drinking. 

The movie is concerned with masculinity; what comprises it, what leads to its decline, how one’s masculinity stack up against someone else’s.  Most of this hinges on Tom, and Edgerton sells him as physically dominant, emotionally insecure, but triumphantly in possession of ‘manhood.’ Tied in with this possession is objectification of women and infantalization of women and minorities, specifically black servants. All this comes to a head in the movie’s climactic scene where he goads Gatsby with – among other things – the pink colored suit.

It’s impossible to know if I would have come to the same conclusions about Gatsby’s personality, the jazz age happenings, Nick’s naivety, etc., had I come without prior knowledge of the book. As a companion piece, a modern presentation of the book’s excesses superimposed over our own, it works. As a standalone film, it’s too much like Nick himself; so enraptured with Gatsby, it fails to heed the warning signs of his nature. It, like Nick, could have used more Jordan.

It’s Jordan, after all – well played and woefully underused – who sums the whole thing up: “He gives large parties, and I like large parties – they’re so intimate. Small parties, there isn’t any privacy.”

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