Title: The Great Gatsby
What A Time To Be Alive. Certainly, if civil rights and polio vaccines weren't your bag.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two and a half Huey Lewis and News Sports albums out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Dissolute Roaring Twenties casualty recounts tales of excess and obsession, all revolving around his former neighbor, the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby.
Tagline: " Can't repeat the past?...of course you can!"
Better Tagline: " There isn't any party like a West Egg party because a West Egg party doesn't stop, precisely, as much as devolve into generational malaise and unrealized obsession."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Aspiring bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved into the only non-mansion in the fashionable Long Island community of West Egg to learn his profession, but is quickly drawn into the world of his neighbor, the (apparently) rich and (definitely) beneficent Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws lavish parties every weekend. Nick soon realizes Gatsby's overtures are merely to gain access to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Gatsby's long-lost sweetheart who has since married old money scion Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and his fabulous social functions were a device to lure Daisy over before he met Nick. Trouble is, Daisy may not be all that ready to leave her husband, letch though he is.
See It/Rent It/Skip It: The only thing justifying a recommendation is the visual production, but is it worth the ticket price? I'd say no.
"Critical" Analysis: I never read F. Scott Fitzgerald's magnum opus until college. Whether this was because it wasn't assigned (unlikely) or because I blew off the assignment and BS'ed my way through the test (now we're talking) is a problem for my biographer. I'm not sure exactly how that delay informed my opinions, but both The Great Gatsby and other works set in that period (The Sun Also Rises comes to mind) left me cold. I didn't sympathize with the characters, and found both Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's not-so-subtle moralizing tiresome.
So in a sense, Baz Luhrmann is the perfect choice to direct this new adaptation. His movies are loaded with amazing visuals and sumptuous locales that nevertheless feel a little lacking emotionally. The Great Gatsby knocks it out of the park in the former department, but still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to making us care about these characters.
Gatsby the novel is certainly open to some interpretation: Is it about the decline of the American dream? Is it a love story? A tale of obsession? Aside from the eyes of good old T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard in the Valley of Ashes, Luhrmann mostly eschews any social commentary (and even with the billboard, it's barely hinted at). He does obsession well, as Christian from Moulin Rouge! could tell you, and the second half of the film is given over to documenting Gatsby's increasingly frantic attempts to get Daisy to return his affections.
But it's all strangely bloodless (not literally, of course: Two people die), and while we're clearly meant to buy into the passion driving Gatsby, Daisy and Tom, too often we were distracted from moments of real emotion with another 3D slow-motion shot or weirdly out-of-place cover song.
About that. I know the anachronistic soundtrack has raised a few hackles (the Beyoncé/Andre 3000 cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" especially), and I admit it was a bit off-putting hearing Jay Z's "100$ Bill" over colorized 1920s newsreel footage, but this is Luhrmann we're talking about, the guy who used "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in a movie about Parisian Bohemians. With all the other distractions, if you're not a Fitzgerald purist, you'll stop noticing after 15 minutes.
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And honestly, Gatsby's a pretty unimaginative dude. With all that mob money, he couldn't come up with a better idea than "throw giant party on the off chance his lost love will wander in?" And it isn't like he didn't know she was living across the bay; it's why he built the frigging house there in the first place.
Seriously, they did have phone books in the 1920s.
It also might be difficult for modern audiences to empathize with Nick's fascination. Part of what is supposed to shock him (and us) about Gatsby is the opulence of his parties, but it's hard to capture that sense of scandalous wonder when all of us have seen the same thing in a dozen 1990s Dr. Dre videos. Luhrmann also plays things a lot more comedically than I remember the source material, perhaps looking to "rouge" things up a bit, but here it just feels...odd. After a great deal of opulent production and a handful of fine performances (Edgerton's stands out the most), we don't come away with much. That the rich get away with murder? That was old news in Nero's day. Luhrmann is trying to push a tragic love story, but his "go big or go Down Under" style just doesn't fit the material.
The Great Gatsby is in theaters today, and if I hear someone say "Old sport" one more time I will run them over with my giant yellow convertible.