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Like a cat and a laser pointer.

The Great Gatsby is classic Baz Luhrman. Like most of his other films, it’s a big messy thing that sweeps you up in its ambition and only occasionally lets you drop. Mirroring the story of its enigmatic central character, the movie is big on imagination but small on coping with things not working out as planned. It’s impossible that this was intentional, but I feel like it’s an insightful observation to make about a resonant coincidence.

More than the book, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a melodrama through and through. Occasionally this induces cringes as some scenes are just too maudlin (in some ways, the book is also an ode to maudlin) or too cheesy to withstand the instinctive rejection of melodrama in and of itself. The movie frequently overplays its hand, resulting in gimmickry that feels cheap rather than the ornate that it’s going for.

Instead of trying to derive some topical, modern-friendly message from what is essentially Rich White People Have Problems: The Movie, Gatsby commits utterly to the somewhat off-history context Luhrmann has crafted for it. This makes it essentially a fairy tale, and it follows through with the conventions until it all begins to fall apart and twist into a tragedy that is almost certainly Shakespeare-inspired. That goes for the book as well, but where the book is tidy and concise, the movie is bombastic and draped over the audience like a cigarette model with too-long legs.

Sometimes you just want her to move.

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Gatsby’s ridiculous castle.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, seemingly ageless) is a wannabe writer who moves to New York City to join all the excitement of the stock trade. He’s related to Old Money but is not essentially “of” it, so he lives in a little cottage right next door to the Jamie Foxx of 1920’s mansions. Across the bay, his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives with her boorish husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, chewing the movie like Doublemint). Always the outsider and observer, Nick gets caught up in the petty intrigues and social abandon of New Yorkers in the 1920’s. He meets professional lady golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and together they are pulled into the grand plan of Nick’s reclusive owner.

Five years ago, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) met and fell in love with Daisy Fay only to disappear after the war (WWI) which left her to marry Tom. Now he’s come back to win her heart again. All the pomp and circumstance he can muster with what seem to be inexhaustible fortunes go toward this project. As he takes up an affair with Daisy, Nick continues to play the chronicler and watch the drama unfold. It’s a tricky proposition for a modern story, actually. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an adaptation of the book dropped Nick’s perspective and made Gatsby more protagonist and less subject. The Great Gatsby is a very faithful adaptation to the book, underneath all the visual stuff, and therefore keeps Nick in the watcher role, providing plenty of opportunities for unnecessary voice over (I think it’s definitely a crutch too often in this movie) and the book-end device where he’s in a Sanitarium writing this all out as a book. Plenty of magical typing across the screen ensues and it is all bad.

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Leo is a good reason to see any movie.

Anyway, back to Gatsby’s plan.

There’s something romantic about it and if you can forget about the contemporary cynicism at the excesses of rich white folks, it’s enjoyable in much the same way as the The Count of Monte Cristo. In fact, I always loved the grandness at the heart of Gatsby’s plans and his efforts to realize them. In the movie, this is given huge emphasis and is brought to life by Luhrmann’s particular flair for pageantry, anachronistic music, and beautiful images that are almost slaps.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a treasure and his performance in this is filled with the kind of nuanced, quieter moments that he’s so good at. It’s interesting to note that he and Luhrmann go back to Romeo+Juliet. Gatbsy is the first time DiCaprio has leveraged his boyish looks rather than tried to make us forget them. His Gatsby is full of childlike wonder and imagination and the same stubborn insistence on his own reality as you’d expect from a headstrong boy. While Nick tells us that Gatsby is the greatest because he’s so hopeful, we see a desperate and naive boy who doesn’t get his way and has a hard time dealing with it. I think DiCaprio’s performance tells us that this is intentional, that it’s actually thematically relevant that what we get from Gatsby and what Nick gets are somewhat different things.

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Because Nick, too, is boyish and naive.

Like in the book, Gatsby is the most interesting thing about the movie. The mystery surrounding his life story, his wealth, and his motives all swirl around throughout the movie and provide the stronger substructure on which is laid those draping legs, that persistent and pretentious melodrama. Less interesting are Nick or Jordan, the latter being my favorite character in the book and here underused in spite of a great performance from Debicki.  However, Carey Mulligan can basically make any character sympathetic and her line readings for Daisy keep her compelling even as the plot assassinates the character, making her more foolish and more frivolous over time. In the book, Daisy feels like the “beautiful fool” she describes early on and never much more. In the film, you get major depth and pathos from Mulligan, enough to garner real sympathy for Daisy and understanding (if not approval) of the choices she makes. Her delivery of the “beautiful fool” line is haunting and it gives the line significance in the movie that I don’t remember it having in the book (where it felt like a witticism in a book full of them). Even Edgerton can’t rescue Tom from being a total cad, but he walks away with just about every scene he’s in and manages to infuse the most repulsive character in the movie with something like human emotions during the movie’s double-climax.

Speaking of that climax, The Great Gatsby is too long. I understand the necessity of the two climaxes (the hotel scene and the accident), but there are two long breaths taken before the end where not only is the whole movie explained back to us by crappy VO, but the whole thing just grinds to a frustrating halt. The first happens before Gatsby dies, the other afterward as Nick goes ballistic and we get to learn all about how he ended up in the Sanitarium writing his book. Even though the book provides an ending, it seems like Luhrmann had trouble wrapping up the movie. Everything after Gatsby’s death especially feels like a movie that can’t quite figure out how to end. With a more concise, abrupt climax, The Great Gatsby would have went out with at least a whimper. As is, it goes out with a self-referential and tedious sigh.

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New York is practically a character in the movie.

In spite of its structural clumsiness and narrative shortcomings, The Great Gatsby is a movie that deserves just about every aesthetic accolade you could give it. It’s impeccably designed, self-consciously mythologizing New York in a way that somehow feels fresh and exciting. I mean, it’s the most mythologized and romanticized city in the United States and Luhrmann makes that feel special anyway. That’s really something.

There’s also that The Great Gatsby is probably the best use of 3D in a live-action film since Avatar.

Though The Great Gatsby is a fairly shallow film overall, and it could be easily said that its visual flair is just more superficiality to disguise its lack of depth, I think it’s more fair to attribute credit to the sensory effect of a movie that is honestly and obviously trying to achieve such an effect. There are parts of Gatsby where wonder is invoked in the audience, where real beauty stands out in a world that is primarily about artifice, and where you can’t help but admire the vision that semi-obnoxiously coats everything else in it.

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The Valley of Ashes is sort of a non-starter.

The one half-hearted attempt Gatsby makes at saying something about the poor is in its depiction of the coal-mined wasteland between Long Island (where the characters live and conduct most of the affairs that make up the movie) and the citadel of New York. This is where the poor, broken down people live. Some hand-waving is given to that the Valley exists to support the partying New Rich that populate the movie, but it doesn’t stick.

Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher play a married couple, the Wilsons, operating a gas station. Myrtle Wilson is Tom’s mistress and a secret thrust upon Nick even though Daisy is a relative. It seems like helping Gatbsy with Daisy is a way for him to balance the scales in terms of secrets and betrayals, but Nick is never able to fully realize his own motivations and the movie too quickly flits back to pageantry or melodrama to bother much with introspection. Nick’s ennui after Gatsby’s death doesn’t really feel like the end-road of his role in all this. He’s too much on Gatsby’s side and not enough on the side of getting away from all these lies, schemes, and secrets. The last secret he keeps is that it was Daisy who killed Myrtle. Maybe Gatsby’s last wish, that no one know it was Daisy, is the element that’s supposed to solidify him as a grand romantic hero. It doesn’t stick, in spite of Nick’s assessment of his character, because it’s still about Gatsby’s master plan and eliminating all obstacles to it.

It’s actually hard to consistently talk about the themes and characterization because while they are present and noticeable, they remain shadows of a story more interested in what these characters do than why. This is also why I called it a bit of a fairy tale. In fairy tales, things happen according to fairy tale logic and people can extract whatever metaphors and meanings they desire. Or they can take the whole thing literally and accept what the narrator or other “authority” in the story tells them about what they just saw. The Great Gatsby plays with the idea that Nick is an unreliable narrator, but there’s no commitment to actually exploring this. The fairy tale is not interested in interpretations, it only wants to set up and pay off.

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Rare scene where The Great Gatsby breaks from its self-serious, maudlin tone and lets itself be awkward and funny.

All in all, The Great Gatsby has too much going for it to be a failure. Though even Luhrmann’s failures are interesting, to be honest. This is one of those movies where the flaws are easily overlooked if you can conceptualize it as a fairy tale and enjoy the sensory ride. Because of the great performances and visual beauty, The Great Gatsby can be enjoyed even if you note the flaws. It’s not expressly a dumb movie, even though it is shallow, and pretentious is often better than careless. I can imagine a version of The Great Gatsby that I would prefer more (as an adaptation of the book) but that doesn’t take away from Luhrmann’s silk and neon romp through his fantasized approach.

I have a strong instinct to criticize this movie on the grounds that it doesn’t acknowledge its social context whatsoever, and embraces the problematic aspects with abandon. I’ve restrained that instinct and reserved what little discussion I can offer about this.

I think a lot of people are going to dismiss or rail against this movie in light of contemporary attitudes toward wealth, excess, and even romance. In some sense, for example, Gatsby’s romanticism borders on creepy. He’s possessive and obsessive and all that fun stuff. Unsurprisingly, the Twilight crowd already seems to be eating this up. Likewise, the MTV Cribs dimension of culture will look at the opulence of Jay Gatsby in much the same way as Tony Montana is remembered. And Tony Montana was satirical, even. That Gatsby is a bootlegger and criminal? Even better. The pop culture impact of Gatsby, if it has much of one, will be depressing.

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Can’t really imagine anyone else playing the guy.

All that said, it seems unfair to go at this movie on that level. Why should the adaptation of a book that’s almost 100 years old be reformulated to acknowledge the way some of its cultural contexts have changed over time? It’s a difficult question to answer. I can imagine good arguments going either way. I could even imagine criticizing a movie for not being more responsible with itself under different circumstances. The Great Gatsby is a trivial movie in many ways and perhaps that’s why I don’t care that it isn’t going for irony when Tom talks about the “Colored Empires” (though Daisy does make jokes about this) or when Gatsby is throwing his ridiculous parties on the bones of a working underclass. If it was less trivial, its story more affecting and profound, then we might rightfully expect some reflection of current social responsibility. But the book doesn’t exactly dwell on or explore those issues and it didn’t need to. It’s an interesting question to ask, whether these Rich White People Have Problems narratives are valid in spite of the cynicism they deserve.

It’s something I’ll probably wrestle with as the discussion of the movie rolls out among my friends and other writers. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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