Review: 'The Great Gatsby' Is A Decadently Empty Tale Of Empty Decadence & Impossible Love

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
May 6, 2013 9:01 AM
45 Comments
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The distinctive, vista-obsessed movies of Baz Luhrmann are nothing if not stylish, generally flamboyant and lavish in their candy-colored visual treatments. Subtlety has never been of much interest to the Australian filmmaker who has leaned heavily on melodrama and romantic fairy tales told in a passionate, bright Technicolor style. But sincerity and resplendent ardor have generally anchored his always-plush films, even when they’ve been too long and affected (“Australia”) or overpowered with the odor of teen angst (“Romeo + Juliet”). Luhrmann, it seems, was born to tell stories of impossible love in the most sumptuous ways possible.

Having made only five films in 21 years, Luhrmann doesn’t work at a hurried pace, and this is largely due to his ambitious aims. His latest, an opulent and stylish postmodern adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel, “The Great Gatsby,” is profusely ambitious and therefore almost obscenely overwrought. Kaleidoscopic, excessive observations have always been Luhrmann’s bread and butter, but in ‘Gatsby’ (along with 3D that just feels superfluous given the director’s affinity for immersion) the panoramic fireworks work against him for the first time. 

Set against the scenic backdrop of the economically prosperous Roaring Twenties jazz-age of New York and Long Island, perhaps a filmmaker consumed with ostentatiously-told stories about doomed love isn’t the best fit to tell this story of doomed love and empty elegance in an age of excess. Perhaps not so counterintuitively, “The Great Gatsby” is overkill almost every step of the way.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the titular and mysterious Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who insinuates himself into the upper crust of Long Island society with a vast fortune that’s implied to be ill-gotten. A man alone in his enormous castle, Gatsby’s entire raison d'être, we’re soon to learn, is winning back the love of an old paramour, New York socialite Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). But Daisy is now married to old-money heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who’s more interested in a life of leisure and his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). The guide through this tale, just like the novel, of course is Yale graduate and World War I veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a cousin of Daisy’s, and but a modest bonds salesman. Doubling as the film’s narrator, he soon finds himself in the crosshairs of intrigue of one Jay Gatsby.

Gatsby has set up shop in Long Island in a luxuriant mansion across the bay from the Buchanan residence. Night after night he throws extravagant, orgiastic parties in the hopes that one day, Daisy will walk through the door as a guest. Ingratiating himself to Carraway, Gatsby attracts the more-impressionable younger man on to his team, so to speak, and manipulates him to help bring Daisy into his honeypot. But as Gatsby gets close to winning Daisy back, his true past and identity is revealed and his impenetrable cool and composure soon unravels. Living in a dream all this time, the facade of class and stature that Gatsby hides behind crumbles, and thus so too does the man.

But for all its passionate feeling and melodrama, ‘Gatsby’ is rarely moving, and that's a major flaw for a movie that drags on for two-and-a-half hours. “The Great Gatsby” is ultimately an epic tragedy, a parable about America, the American dream ethos and its consequences, but the movie’s overblown style chokes the life out of any substance the story may have. And while faithful to Fitzgerald’s novel, some of its themes just don’t track within the movie. Carraway is supposed to be practically besotted with his friend Gatsby. As in the novel, the wide-eyed character is in awe of Gatsby’s “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…an extraordinary gift for hope…such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” The problem with such convenient, lofty proverbs ripped from the book is that the movie never actually demonstrates them, so they are not only unbelievable and hard to buy emotionally, but hollow sentiments. The word "hope," repeated often, is meant to be a theme, but in the film Gatsby is mostly seen as a charlatan whose reach exceeds his grasp. What good is in him other than taking shortcuts for love, we’re apparently supposed to just invent in our imaginations. So aside from his ill-conceived aspirations (that eventually lead him nowhere), it’s a wonder why Carraway is so taken with this aloof protagonist who’s consistently hard to empathize with.

A kind of visual and sonic overkill, “The Great Gatsby” never knows when to say when. Music-wise the movie is often at its most egregious, the use of the anachronistic modern songs in the movie frequently border on ridiculous. Sure, sprinkles of modern juxtaposition can work (see the films of Quentin Tarantino that seem to pull it off), but near wall-to-wall songs, modern or otherwise, are quickly grating and overbearing. Luhrmann’s stylistic approach to ‘Gatsby’ seems to scream “reeeeemix!” at all times. Jay-Z, the modern hustler, is perhaps the perfect person to pull together the soundtrack to Jay Gatsby, the jazz-age con artist. And while it’s a cute recontextualization of themes, it comes across as a stylistic flourish that lends no weight to the film. Lana del Ray’s obnoxious heartbreak song is played ad nauseum, and the parties! It’s as if Luhrmann is convinced that this age of decadence and debauchery was one big techno pop rave, so why not just pump up the volume and zoom the camera around with shebang, pow, pop and whiz.

Shot by Simon Duggan (“I Robot,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” no past Luhrmann films), surprisingly enough, 3D is an issue as well. We’ve seen the medium used to breathtaking effect by visual masters like James Cameron, Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, and given Luhrmann’s penchant for dazzling eye candy, the stereoscopic technology should be right at home. But whereas 3D needs to breathe to fully luxuriate, Luhrmann’s film is all impatient, cut, cut, cut like a music video, never letting the medium truly shine outside of a few shots obviously designed to be epic and immersive. The movie’s fondness for romantic superimposition and dissolves doesn’t work well within the medium, and neither do whip pans or camera moves that are too abrupt. Also featuring appearances by Jason Clarke, Adelaide Clemens, Amitabh Bachchan and Elizabeth Debicki as the aloof golfer and socialite Jordan Baker, ‘Gatsby’ is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent, but rarely do these performers receive an honest moment.

Despite a hackneyed flashback framing-device narrative that feels cheap and hardly effective, 'Gatsby' has some moments that are worthwhile. When it's finished its battering-ram attack of convincing you this decade and milieu are extravagant (which lasts about the first 2/3rds of the movie -- we get it!), the picture slows down to a simmer of melodrama that would make Douglas Sirk proud. It also finally give its tremendous cast a moment to act instead of simply dangling like marionettes in a theatrical extravaganza about love, loss and the pitfalls of having everything except the one true thing you desire more than anything in the whole world. DiCaprio is good, no doubt, even in a role that’s largely unsympathetic (another problem with ‘Gatsby’ is its lack of protagonist as the POV keeps shifting from Carraway back to Gatsby and so forth), but Mulligan is almost a lovelorn stand-in with nothing to do but look troubled in her immaculately tailored costumes. As the arrogant and brute-ish Tom, Edgerton probably has the meatiest role, but he too mostly has to sneer as the haughty villain of the picture. Maguire is such a non-entity, one wonders what his career would do without the "Spider-Man" films.

Despite its need to beat you over the head with its lavishness, there are moments when Luhrmann’s sound and vision (a better-than-the-soundtrack score by Craig Armstrong helps) is admittedly spectacular. The expressive ‘Gatsby’ also has the power to transport, but the main problem is that it never lifts the audience to anywhere of significance other than the clouds where the party fireworks have already evaporated. With the sound off, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” surely looks as radiant and extraordinary as some of the most dazzling movies ever committed to celluloid, but with the sound up and the experience on full volume, the movie is mostly a cacophony of style, excess and noise that makes you want to turn it all down a notch...or three... [C+]

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45 Comments

  • Kathleen Markham | June 8, 2013 12:41 AMReply

    It seems Mr. Perez is the greatest cynic of all. :-(
    I liked the movie! Wonder what Mr. Perez thought of "Field Of Dreams" ?!

  • Kathy | June 2, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    The film felt like an elaborate 21st costume party. Nothing about it was authentic from the time period to the NY setting or accents. I think DiCaprio is an excellent Actor, but IMHO this was not his finest moment. In fact, I think all the acting was upstaged by lack of authenticity (time period, accents, music, obvious use of CGI in a drama, etc.), feverish editing, wackiness, and poor 3D. I agree with your review with the exception of your praise for the acting.

  • Daniel Delago | May 13, 2013 5:59 AMReply

    I'm tired of all the criticism for this film. The bottom line is simple - it is quite entertaining. Compared to the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow 1974 yawner (penned by Francis Ford Coppola), this one is fast-paced, glitzy and captures the decadence of the Roaring Twenties. DiCaprio embodies Jay Gatsby. His real life almost mimics Gatsby if you think about it. Rodrigo, "Old Sport," I can't believe you looked at your watch once in the darkened theatre. My review like Luhrmann's film is flashy and to the point "Old Sport." examiner.com/review/the-great-gatsby-movie-review-1

  • Green Light | May 11, 2013 8:21 PMReply

    There's only TWO fucking party scenes at his mansion and a 2-minute apartment party scene. I was expecting some Moulin Rouge wall-to-wall montage filmmaking after reading this review, and it was nothing like that. Rodrigo, dude, what are you talking about with all the cacophony/excess talk? This was probably Baz's most chilled-out film yet. A-

  • Miss Chloe | May 11, 2013 12:08 PMReply

    Check out my review of The Great Gatsby at
    http://moviemyriad.blogspot.com/2013/05/great-gatsby-review.html?m=1

  • Johanna | May 10, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the titular and mysterious Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who insinuates himself into the upper crust of Long Island society with a vast fortune that’s implied to be ill-gotten.

    Pretty sure "insinuates" is the wrong word choice here. Also, what are you saying in the third paragraph? It's very confusing.

  • James | May 13, 2013 7:02 PM

    Nope, he used the word correctly. Merriam-Webster definition - "Maneuver oneself into (a position of favor or office) by subtle manipulation: "she insinuated herself into management"."

  • UGH | May 9, 2013 5:41 AMReply

    Pretty weak film. Joel Edgerton does walk away with the picture though. He's excellently delicious even if Tom is make extremely one-note.

  • thiggis | May 7, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    Is Luhrman a director who likes to crank everything up to eleven really the best director to adapt Fitzgerald?

  • oogle monster | May 7, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    I wonder if we will look back at this movie years from now and appreciate it, the way we do with Moulin Rouge. And I saw we because we're all one big happy family <3.

  • MJ | May 7, 2013 11:41 AMReply

    When will studios get it through their heads that while Fitzgerald is one of America's most acclaimed writers ever, the reason for that acclaim is not in his plotting, but in his prose, something that doesn't translate to the screen. Now a book like Gatsby could work in film in the hands of someone willing to make something separate from the novel instead of slavish (or in this case, vapid) like what Joe Wright pulled off with Atonement, a novel that's almost entirely written in unspoken thoughts but the film works as its own entity for having the courage and talent to use the book as a jumping off point for their own vision. Those that have attempted Gatsby have either made asinine edits that didn't have a life of their own or any logic to them, or put on a stage show of the book (the Redford film) which just shows how interior the book is and why it doesn't work on screen, and now we have Baz Luhrman making a garish costume party of the Great American Novel. With that cast and someone with the initiative of the Atonement filmmakers something could have been made of it though. Please, no one ever get the gall to believe you can adapt This Side of Paradise.

  • bebebebebebe | May 11, 2013 6:12 PM

    Can't This Side of Paradise, by your logic, be used as a jumping off point by someone talented?

  • Glass | May 7, 2013 4:09 AMReply

    Shocking! After all the backhanded comments added to every other news post about this movie, I thought The Playlist would LOVE it!

  • Glass | May 10, 2013 6:56 AM

    @Erik - I did see it and I think giving it a C+ is some crazy talk. It's at least a B, bros...

  • RP | May 9, 2013 11:17 AM

    Dude, I'm sorry. I do see you comment frequently and you're one of the rare people who is civil and we deeply appreciate that. My buttons weren't pushed so much, but I can see how it might seem that way with caps (i wish we could ital in comments). Anyhow, I guess all i'm ever saying is 1. not a hive mind. 2. keep in mind different writers different views. Maybe a number of people were just skeptical up front? Re: snark. I hear you. Sometimes it's too much. The flipside is others that are, "go movies!" all the time and with no discerning critical faculties and I personally can't handle that. Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to discuss.

  • oogle monster | May 9, 2013 10:51 AM

    RP- Sorry- wasn't trying to push your button. I actually really enjoy your reviews/articles and the rest of what your team has to offer (hence why I visit this site 5-6 times a day). And we can disagree on what the meaning of constant snark is but I will stick with my opinion. All in all, I appreciate your review and no beef here.

  • RP | May 8, 2013 5:05 PM

    @OG. So maybe Kevin or one of the daily writers writing about it often didn't think it looked that good. That's their prerogative. It's not CONSTANT trashing. It's not "constant snark" It's an opinion with a voice. Have you ever seen a movie and thought: "Hmm, i dunno, this could be a disaster"? So yeah, that. Mind you any one in the daily blog grind will form a judgement, but mark my words, you come to a clean slate when the lights go down.

    And so finally, whatever, those thoughts have nothing to do with mine.

  • Oogle monster | May 8, 2013 4:13 PM

    RP - I think Glass is referring to the fact that THE PLAYLIST constantly had something snarky to say. Honestly, I don't look at who wrote the article most of the time b/c I think of the Playlist as one big happy family. So perhaps this comment should be directed at your team and not you specifically.

  • Erik | May 8, 2013 3:27 PM

    Totally agree with RP here. Glass, for one, it helps to look at the bylines for each story. We at The Playlist don't all think exactly alike. In fact, we sometimes -- gasp! -- disagree. But not in this case, Rod's review is spot on (though I'd give it an even lower grade), he was fair and honest all the way through. Dude, if you already are defensive over a movie (I assume) you haven't seen yet, then you need to consider why you're reacting to a negative review like that. Just sayin...

  • RP | May 8, 2013 9:12 AM

    Find one post where i talked backhandedly about it. We're not a hive mind, sorry. I think Baz is a great director and Moulin Rouge is fantastic, but this is the curdled version of everything great about Baz gone wrong. Though like I said, when it settles down it gets better, but it's a bit far too late by that point.

  • rodie | May 7, 2013 12:47 AMReply

    Is there anyone out there who is a Toby Maguire FAN?. .I mean, really, like do people say to themselves, "Wow Toby Maguire's in it, I so have to see this movie!" I don't understand how he gets the roles he does, except maybe that he lucked into Spider-Man (should have been Jake Gyllenhaal in the first place) and then married the daughter of Sony Pictures' president.

  • Oogle Monster | May 7, 2013 3:37 PM

    He was perfect in Pleasantville.

  • oliver | May 7, 2013 12:59 PM

    Hi!
    I think Toby Maguire was good in "Brothers (2009)".

  • MJ | May 7, 2013 11:44 AM

    I think he has the potential to be a strong supporting actor, not the kind that sells tickets, but one that serves the films he's in, but after Spider-Man that kind of anonymity will likely elude him and he isn't strong enough a performer to carry an ambitious film or marketable enough to lead a commercial one.

  • Chris | May 6, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Agree with everything but the description of the Lana Del Rey song. Obnoxious? It's so hauntingly beautiful and the one good thing about the film.

  • Miss candid | May 6, 2013 7:15 PMReply

    I'm sorry, but Leo is not young or fresh or sympathetic enough anymore to play this character. Too much hard living.

  • Freddie | May 6, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    I expected this exact result when I found out Baz Luhrmann was directing what is my favourite novel of all time. I feel he never really understands subtle, character driven plot and simply concetrates on large set-pieces. Also, come on. Tobey Maguire? I can understand why he might have been short-listed for the role but would have preferred more of an up and comer. There would have been a natural sense of amazement from someone who could have been made by the role of Carraway.

  • Sidsbowl | May 6, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    You need a Gatsby who can win the audience without trying (not DiCaprio) and a Carroway who carries with him gravitas and a sense of integrity (not Maguire).

  • Lou | May 7, 2013 11:32 AM

    Uhm. Do not agree on this. Even though, if I recall correctly, a physical description of Gatsby is not given in the book, I found Di Caprio a good Gatsby (but I can only judge from the trailer, not having seen the film yet). As for Maguire as Carraway, why not? Carraway is an impassive witness and the narrator of events who only "unfreezes' in the end. I am curious about Myrtle. I like Isla Fischer and expect good things from her.

  • GERARD KENNELLY | May 6, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    the liveliest work in the film comes from two actors
    with only a few minutes of screen time
    the lithe, long-limbed newcomer Elizabeth Debicki
    as gabby golf pro Jordan Baker,
    and, in a single scene
    that marks his belated Hollywood debut,
    Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan
    as the flamboyant Jewish “gambler,” Meyer Wolfsheim

    http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/the-great-gatsby-review-1200447930/#!1/tobey-maguire/

  • Bissymissy | May 7, 2013 1:25 PM

    Gatsby has to win the audience to his side - as he does Nick, or the entire thing falls apart. And if the narrator lacks substance his commentary is meaningless.

  • Lou | May 6, 2013 2:58 PMReply

    I never thought that The Great Gatsby (one of my favourite books) is a novel about love. I took it as a perfect description of the superficiality of a certain social milieu. The characters in the book, in my view, are all equally unlikable and futile, including Gatsby in a way. So, I hope that the film gets this right.

  • Joel V | May 6, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    Was also hoping it would be better received. Regardless, looking forward to seeing it. BTW, grateful that the comments section is a bit civil; The Hollywood Reporter's comments section is resembling more and more Yahoo's.

  • oogle monster | May 6, 2013 2:14 PM

    They are awful over there. They were commenting on how Mulligan isn't beautiful and other crap. At least the review is positive on THR.

  • MDL | May 6, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Gee, didn't see that coming.... I read one review in which the critic said essentially that Luhrmann doesn't make films about romance; he makes films that fetishize romance.

  • oogle monster | May 6, 2013 9:42 AMReply

    I am really sad to hear that Mulligan isn't really all that great in the role. Or at least from what I have read, she doesn't have MUCH to do. So maybe it's not her. I mean- Daisy isn't the most meaty character in literature so I guess it makes sense. But it's Mullags! She can do no wrong. God dammit, I hate everything today. I wanted this movie to succeed and I wanted all the haters to eat crow.

  • Take 2 | May 14, 2013 7:53 PM

    Yes her performance was fine, but that doesn't change the fact that she was miscast. Not for one second did I believe she was the type of girl who got involved with a guy who would go to prison, be involved with gangsters etc.

  • GiGi! | May 10, 2013 5:03 PM

    Carey has been miscast in a lot of films lately. It's one of those things that happens when an actor becomes 'hot.' They start taking every big role that's offered them, even when they're not right for it.

  • oogle monster | May 9, 2013 10:56 AM

    Nah, she was perfectly fine. It's not a meaty role but she does a fine job. I do take issue with the constant mopey look she tends to give off. Honestly, I can't think of a better actress for the role of Daisy. Maybe Rachel McAdams. What do the readers of The Playlist think?

  • Take 2 | May 7, 2013 1:41 PM

    Do no wrong? Drive she was majorly misscast - totally unbelievale in that role.

  • Alan B | May 6, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    "overpowered with the odor of teen angst (“Romeo + Juliet”)." I agree: the idea of a TEEN-driven 'Romeo and Juliet' is MISGUIDED. It's completely AGAINST what Shakespeare intended. I have got a pitch for the REAL story of 'Romeo and Juliet': it is about the true story behind the conflict, in which one family refused to pay their share of taxes in a joint business venture. It's about middle-aged men disagreeing over trade and finances etc. Take THAT Luhrmann! Your attempts to bring "teen angst" to 'Romeo and Juliet' don't cut it at The Playlist!

  • Alan B | May 6, 2013 10:01 AM

    "And while it’s a cute recontextualization of themes, it often just just a stylistic flourish that bears no substance to the piece."

    Oh, and please don't criticize someone for their "cute" work, OK? It's patronizing, obnoxious, and - unless you have achieved something great within that particular field - facile. Bob Dylan can accuse a song for being "cute": his achievements give that opinion genuinely weight. It's like someone saying that they don't play the piano, but - if he DID - then he would be a better player than Stevie Wonder. It's a disturbing combination of arrogance and a lack of talent.

  • Oogle monster | May 6, 2013 9:29 AMReply

    Wow this bums me out so much. I am actually really sad that this film is receiving so much negativity.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 6, 2013 9:28 AMReply

    I never thought people actually went to Baz Luhrmann films for the story anyway. Besides, everyone I know just keeps creaming over that soundtrack. lol

  • MJ | May 7, 2013 11:48 AM

    Whether that's the case with his other films or not, in this case he's using probably the most beloved novel in American history as his springboard so of course his usual approach is going to incur a lot more disdain than in the past.

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