May 13, 2013 by Devin
I recently saw The Great Gatsby. I decided that this would be a good movie to give thoughts about, but I need to give a disclaimer: I have not read the book, so I am analyzing the movie as a standalone movie, which is how it should work. In addition, “It was that way in the book” is not a valid defense against any criticisms I give it.
I am conflicted with The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. On one hand, the film certainly is not bad. Luhrmann slows down his ADHD filmmaking style just in time to make an actual movie, so it does not suffer from the same hyperactive fatigue that brought down Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. On the other hand, the film, the characters, and the emotion all feel empty. I have been told that that is the point, and yet I am not sure that that makes it better.
For those that do not know, The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway, a Yale grad who moves to New York. There he meets Jay Gatsby, a rich and extravagant party goer who is interested in Nick’s married cousin, Daisy.
The Great Gatsby feels like there are two movies here: the movie adapted from the novel and the movie Luhrmann was more interested in making. Luhrmann frames the movie with Nick recollecting the events of the film to a psychologist. Sometimes it feels like this framing method is the only thing keeping the film on track. The movie has extravagant camerawork and musical sequences that vary in quality but often feel distracting (I did really like Tom’s party). Part of the film’s conceit is that the 20s era opulence described in The Great Gatsby is remarkably similar to the opulence in hip hop culture today, which is why hip hop songs are used throughout the movie.
I think the point is vaild but the execution is sloppy. Sometimes the songs work really well and sometimes they are incredibly jarring. The problem is that this is still a story about 1920s opulence, which means that the film still has to tell the story of Jay Gatsby who lived in the 1920s, danced to swing music, and died before hip hop was ever a thing. This creates an inconsistent film. There are sequences that make the comparison the forefront of the film, but then at some point in the film these ideas are seemingly dropped in favor of a more traditional interpretation of Gatsby.
It also feels a bit racist. All of the black characters are used to show off the extravagence and folly of that mindset while the white characters, though also often engaging in the same extravagence, get more screentime to show off more shades of their personality. The film practically uses black characters as shorthand for excess and does not develop them beyond that.
Thus, my enjoyment of the film was based on the story itself, and here is where I feel most conflicted. I do think the actors all did an incredible job. Leonardo DiCaprio will get a lot of praise for his Gatsby role, but I think Joel Edgerton, who plays Daisy’s husband Tom, managed to inject his role with both maliciousness and sympathy.
Unfortunately, I still did not care for any of the characters. About halfway through the movie I realized that I did not care if the characters lived or died. Nick and Daisy both lack any sort of agency at all, not quite flat but still lacking any sort of pathos. I realized that I was supposed to like Gatsby and admire his charisma, but I feel like the film took that for granted. His introduction relies on the fact that DiCaprio’s smug face is just so darn appealing that the audience cannot help but fall for his charms, and I didn’t. So when the more unsavory aspects of Gatsby’s personality come up later on, I stopped liking him as a character.
Fans of this movie have told me that this is the point, that I am not necessarily supposed to ilke Gatsby or think Nick and Daisy are full characters. Essentially, the film is shallow, lifeless, and unsympathetic because that era and that lifestyle was shallow, lifeless, and unsympathetic. I feel like this is a bit of a cop-out answer and brushes over some of the story’s biggest problems. At one point, we find out that Gatsby is not a product of this particular era and culture; he was always like this. And yet Nick seems to have an adoration of the man, and Nick is the audience surrogate. In fact, beyond being an audience surrogate, I do not understand Nick’s purpose to anything. For a large part of the film, he is just there and not much else.
My conflict with this movie is that I see a story full of characters I do not care about, that do not have personalities or have personalities that are shallow, and I am told that that is the point. I do not understand why that is the point, and more importantly, I have found that tragedies succeed that show the humanity of their tragic figures, even if their point is that the main character is a shallow person (see Death of a Salesman, Citizen Kane, and to some extend, (500) Days of Summer). I feel like I am left with a story that I am intentionally not supposed to like.
Does that mean the movie succeeds? Not sure.