Rated PG for sexual content, minor drug use and mild violence.
Directed by: Baz Lurhmann.
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke.
So before I begin I’d like to explain my relationship with this story, or should I say, lack of relationship. I have not read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, and have not seen the 1974 film in its entirety, let alone the other renditions of it. The point of this introduction is to explain that my faults with the film are not directly from the story itself, as I’m sure the novel is great, but more from this particular adaptation, and how director Baz Luhrmann decided to adapt the novel to the big screen. How it compares to the novel I do not know, but I do know how it stands as a film on its own. How well does it stand? Well read on and find out.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young stockbroker who has just moved to New York, living in a small cottage beside an extravagant palace, owned by the rich and mysterious Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). One night he is invited to one of Gatsby’s famous parties, and soon he and the mysterious man become friends. Not long after their friendship begins he finds out that Gatsby is essentially using him to get to his hot cousin, Daisy, (Carey Mulligan) with whom he has had a past relationship. Only problem is, she’s married to the rich and pompous Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). So Gatsby starts seeing Daisy, they fall back in love, everyone gets drunk and parties, drama ensues and Luhrmann shoves another hip-hop song randomly in the film just for shits.
Despite what the marketing will tell you, Tobey Maguire is the real star of this film, with his character Nick Carraway literally carrying the story. The movie is really less about the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, but more about the Nick’s feelings of alienation and always being the third wheel in whatever situation. His story is overall pretty tragic, as he’s the only character who really cares about everyone, and is willing to do whatever is needed but is always overlook and not recognized. Maguire’s performance is excellent, capturing the moments of wonder, inner turmoil and ultimately despair and tragedy. He was by far the best part about the film for me, and I’ll get to DiCaprio next, but as far as I’m concerned Maguire stole the show, proving he is one of the most capable actors out there, playing a character so complex and experiencing so much, but still remaining that level of ignorance and innocence to the situations. Okay, that’s enough gushing over Maguire, now let me gush over DiCaprio, cause he’s beyond great. He plays the character of Jay Gatsby so well, and just absorbs the scenery and becomes the character, with subtle mannerisms, constant inner conflict briefly displayed by subtle body language, while still keeping a cool and calm appearance. He comes off as such a nice person, but still has that shroud of mystery about him, making him so much more complex that what is led on.
Joel Edgerton is another stand out, making his character a pompous dick, but never really going into cartoonish villain territory, and ultimately he becomes somewhat sympathetic during the end, making his character somewhat likeable, as he’s just doing what any real person would do in his situation, and becomes understanding and sincere. I mean yeah he cheated on his wife so he’s a douche for that, but she cheated on him with Gatsby so I guess they’re even. That brings me to Carey Mulligan. Now personally, I really like Mulligan, I think she’s a very talented actress and a rising star that is constantly surprising everyone. She’s beautiful, charming and very likable…in reality, not in the movie, here she’s annoying as shit. I don’t blame Mulligan, I blame the character, because honestly, Daisy is such a self-centred manipulative flake that I found it so hard to root for her. All she really does is complain about her lavish existence, wishing she could be with Gatsby, but because he’s poor she goes for the rich guy, but then once Gatsby returns and he owns more money than God she suddenly falls happily back into his arms…or does she? She still wants her husband but also wants to party and dance and then wants to go into town and then can’t decide between this or that but wait doesn’t she have a daughter? Not really adding her into the equation, are you? Also she knew Gatsby 5 years ago and was crazy in love with him, but didn’t think to connect that Gatsby to the one who throws crazy parties that everyone is always talking about? Really Daisy? Really? I know I sound like I’m being mean, but her character is such a poor representation of female lead characters, and I know it takes place in the 1920’s but she still could have had another defining feature other than just “that girl everyone loves”. Again, I don’t blame Mulligan, she did the best job she could with what was given to her. I blame whoever wrote the screenplay…which in turn would mean I blame Baz Luhrmann. Remember that, it’s going to be a common theme later on…
As previously stated I loved the story of Nick Carraway, and how everything played out and came together for his character. While it may not be the main focus of the film, it’s always going on, you just need to look past the silly love story to see it. Also the three main male leads are all excellent, and I really praise their performances. Seriously, Oscar talk for them would be nice. There are certain points during the film when Lurhmann was off his crack and actually lets a scene play out, letting the actors do their thing, and I really appreciated that, and small moments like those when it’s not all about showing off how fast the editor can cut a scene where they actually develop plot, which is nice, because the story itself is very good. While I have many issues with the style this film decided to represent, I did really love the set and costume design, both of which are very well thought out, look gorgeous and make you feel you are in the 1920’s…that is of course until they start playing the latest hip-hop song by DJ Whatever-the-fuck. So, the moments of humanity and calmness to explore the plot are great, acting superb and set design and costume very well done and beautiful.
Oh…where do I begin? I know everyone loves Baz Lurhmann for his “style”, but personally, it’s that reason alone why I’m not a fan of his. He has this bizarre, A.D.D style of filmmaking, where it’s like he’s afraid to leave the camera on one thing for longer that half a second. Seriously, in the first 10 minutes the film had cut so many times I was getting a headache. Are people’s attention spans really that short that you need to be jumping from one thing to another so frantically that you hardly have time to figure out what’s going on? I understand during the party scenes that this is used to give you the sense of being there and what not, and that’s fine, it sort of works, but there are scenes where it’s just Nick and Daisy talking and it’s like the camera was having a damn seizure. Not every scene needs to be an action scene! Let the characters talk, develop, be on screen for long that the blink of an eye. IF ONLY BAZ LUHRMANN WOULD CALM THE FUCK DOWN then the drama and tension would be that much more satisfying, but as it stands it just feels…well, childish. So many scenes in the movie felt like a group of young school children putting on their first stage production of the novel, but before they went on stage they found their Uncles “special powder” and got coked out of their minds. The lines are rushed, the scenes too fast for their own good and the dialogue clunky and forced. Not to mention how over the top everything has to be, Gatsby reveals himself to Nick while fireworks are exploding behind him, for a guy who lives in secrecy he’s far from subtle. Now, luckily there is a point about halfway through the film when the movie does calm down and you are given a chance to actually become invested in what is happening, and I was thankful for that because I thought I was losing my damn mind.
Okay, time for the music. I know a big deal was made out of the fact that this period piece film was using modern day music for its soundtrack, getting a lot of very talented musician’s work playing during the film, but here’s my problem with that: I have nothing against the music itself, it’s fine, and they play some really great songs, what I have a problem with is the way they use the music. There are scenes where a modern song is just playing over what is happening, that’s cool, distracting, but whatever, it happens. What I don’t like is when characters are at parties or clubs, and the music playing their is modern day rap or hip-hop. Characters in this film are listening to music that hasn’t even been invented yet, it’s beyond distracting and overall pointless. There are plenty of good songs and music you could have used from the 1920’s to help set the tone and establish mood and all that, you don’t need a pop song playing! It’s just so beyond distracting and feels very forced, especially because the music playing seems like the last thing the characters would actually listen to. Luhrmann is trying so hard to make this movie “cool for the kids” for no real reason. Adapt the novel as best you can, you don’t need to make it “cool”, I’m sure it’s good enough as it is without you trying to make it appeal to the kids, he did the same thing with Shakespeare and now this. You don’t need an updated soundtrack to improve your period piece of a film, it really only exists to promote the artists and make the film more appealing for the kids. It would be like if someone redid To Kill a Mockingbird and had Scout and Jem dancing to deadmau5, it’s just unnecessary and distracting.
If The Cather in the Rye is adapted and Holden releases his angst by sitting around listening to the latest emo band, I’ll be fucking pissed.
So what is my point in all of this? It’s that the film is trying to be something that the source material is (assuming) not. The novel is about parties? Well bust out the DJ and let’s get a cool soundtrack to make it appealing. The novel is a romantic drama? Well that’s boring, let’s film everything so damn fast and hyper that the kids won’t be bored while we get this plot shit out of the way and get to the next music video. The novel’s overtones deal with societies consumerism and selfishness? Well let’s bring that in at the last minute to make a point before the end credits. The novel is a 1920’s romance drama? Well let’s make it in 3D for whatever reason. Look, I respect that the movie tried to do something new with the source material and Lurhmann is trying to make it as accessible as possible, especially for a younger generation, and you know what? If that was his intention, he did a good job. It’s fast, flashy, good music and has Leonardo DiCaprio, what more could the today’s generation ask for? The reason this didn’t work for me is because this is an adaptation of an classic novel that, I’m pretty sure, wasn’t THIS flashy and hyper, and probably had a lot more to say then this film is really trying to get across. The message is still there, but overshadowed by the rest of the confusion and fast paced events taking place. Style over substance, happens all the time, and is unfortunately the case here.
Despite my angry ranting, I don’t hate this movie. There is a lot about it that I like, I like the design of the time they live in, I love the subtext and message at the end, I love the acting, Nick’s story arc and some of the party scenes are well done. There is just so much about it that didn’t sit right with me. The hyper style of filmmaking, the out of place music, the director’s constant need to make this movie “cool and hip”, it just seems offensive in a way. I had similar problems with the Lurhmann’s Romero + Juliet, and I still have them here. The reason this film isn’t going to get the worst rating in the world is because I do actually recommend it to some degree. If you like style, the music and glamour that the film portrays, there is no way you’re not going to love it, and that’s fine, just because I’m a hard ass doesn’t mean everyone else has to be, and there is a lot to admire about the film, but it really won’t be one that I’ll look back on that fondly later on. Recommended if interested.