I know this review is going to be read by a particular person, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the movie. Having said that, though, I know you love the book, and therefore you’re familiar with the plot and themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. I hope you’ll still see this movie, and not let my thoughts shade your experience one way or the other.
First things first. The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that most American students are forced to read in high school. For reasons unclear to me, the “powers that be” selected Gatsby to be one of those “important books” that all high schoolers know by heart. Well, count me as the exception. I’ve never read the book (really!), and until last night I didn’t have an inkling as to what the story is about. (I don’t recall precisely how I got out of reading the book in high school, but I think it involved giving a sincere look to the teacher and promising to read A Separate Peace instead.)
My first thought was that Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play the role of Jay Gatsby. He has the look, the demeanor, but the acting… almost seems a little stiff. Here’s a man who’s played Howard Hughes, Frank Abagnale and a few other famous (and infamous) true-to-life and fictitious scoundrels, and I’m almost surprised by DiCaprio’s lack of charisma and chemistry in the role. Is it just me?
For DiCaprio and director Baz Luhrmann, Gatsby is a reunion. The two teamed up in 1996 for Romeo + Juliet, a movie I enjoyed at the time but would probably find too over-the-top nowadays. (I don’t know if their previous work is something that brought them together again in 2013, but it was on my mind last night as I watched Gatsby.)
I recall living in the New York City area on and off between 2003 and 2007 (technically New Jersey and Connecticut, but who’s counting?) and seeing Luhrmann’s name on a lot of the billboards and lighted signs around Times Square and the Great White Way. Luhrmann’s produced some of the most gloriously extravagant musicals and movies of the last twenty years. Small and intimate are not words in his vocabulary. In any other director’s hands, films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge would be big, excessive bores, but somehow with Luhrmann’s involvement, they work.
Gatsby could be the exception to the rule, though. It’s big and loud, but things get just a little out-of-control. The framing device of the sanitarium, the on-screen handwriting, the voiceover… it’s a lot of movie storytelling “crutches” that Luhrmann should be skillful enough to avoid. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t.) They distract and tend to take one out of the experience.
The movie held my attention for roughly an hour, and after that it started to drag. DiCaprio commands his early scenes (which are by far the film’s strongest), but as the movie progresses, the focus (figuratively) starts to blur. DiCaprio seems almost unable to inhabit the character of Gatsby, and seems to struggle with the character’s deeper flaws, emotions and obsessions.
Luhrmann knows how to photograph a movie. His scenes of partying, decadence and mayhem are as good as anybody’s. I appreciate his “creative” use of soundtrack music (employing R&B in scenes set in the 1920s). I also welcome his casting of actresses/dancers who have natural, normal, healthy bodies. It’s nice to see some women who look real in a movie that’s this glamorous.
But is the movie good? Not really. There is some beautiful scenery, some winsome actors, a sincere performance from Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and the movie plays perfectly fine in standard 2D. But it’s boring. This is one of those movies where a lot of effort and energy are in evidence on the screen, but they don’t add up to much. Perhaps the fans of the novel will appreciate it more, as they certainly will watch the film with a higher emotional stake in the story and characters. But for me, coming in as an outsider, I was bored.
If you like Leo, if you enjoy romance, you’ll probably like the film. If you expect to be moved and entertained for more than two hours, you’ll probably want to bring a cell phone and a good texting buddy. And remember to sit in the back of the auditorium, so the theatre staff don’t catch you.