Like all movies, there are a number of ways to analyze, interpret and criticize director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby.” More than any other movie in recent memory, it makes a number of unusual decisions with its soundtrack and visual style that seemingly contradict with its time and place. If my screening is any indication, it will be common for the viewing audience to start giggling when a Jay-Z track pops up, given that the film is set in the 1920s, far before his style of music ever emerged onto the public scene. Some will find this decision clumsy and distracting in an otherwise straight forward drama, but others will find the soundtrack appropriate in a movie about the dichotomy between surface-deep lavish lifestyles and the true quest for happiness. I’m in the former category, unfortunately. This baffling decision, along with a number of others, takes a movie that is generally well made and interesting and turns it into something that comes off more like a self-parody.
The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) discussing the experiences he had with his millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious man living in New York that has rarely been seen, to the point where some claim him to not even exist. Nick quickly finds out he does, however, when one of his famous parties is thrown and he introduces himself. They quickly become friends and though Nick questions the stories that Mr. Gatsby tells him, he finds something oddly appealing about him. He soon realizes that Gatsby knew his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), from many years ago and had fallen in love with her. Although she’s now married to another wealthy man named Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick agrees to set them up. Things aren’t as they seem with Mr. Gatsby, however, and it’s all about to surface.
One thing you can say about director Baz Luhrmann is that he knows what he wants. With each movie he directs, he has a clear vision of how it should be and sets out to make it, with mixed results. In “The Great Gatsby,” he attempts to do what he did with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and modernize it for a new audience. Yet those attempts to make something old new again come with their drawbacks, not the least of which is the setting of the source material. As mentioned before, “The Great Gatsby” relies heavily on modern day music, including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Fergie and more. Although one’s affinity for this conflict between modern music and classic time period boils down to little more than personal preference and is not necessarily a bad idea given the tone the film is trying to convey, it’s in its usage that the film becomes seriously wounded.
Much of the early footage in “The Great Gatsby” takes place at one of Mr. Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where nearly everyone from all walks of life drop by to have a good time and, expectedly, this is where the soundtrack is most prominent. However, using it like this—as the source music for the party itself—makes the music diegetic, meaning it exists within the world of the film and not as an outside source most scores and soundtracks exist as. One can’t help but wonder how this could possibly happen in a movie with its time period planted firmly in the past. When you begin catching extras or minor characters in the background singing the words, it really becomes tough to swallow.
This isn’t an isolated example, however. This problem of conflicting styles and settings is indicative of the entire film. The bright, exaggerated colors and excessive use of obviously superficial CGI backgrounds sometimes make this thing feel more like an adaptation of a graphic novel than a classic novel. The vertigo shots, slow motion and onscreen text similarly add flair to a story that doesn’t particularly need it. Frankly, the story is interesting enough without these supposed upgrades. Mr. Gatsby, as portrayed by DiCaprio in yet another knockout performance, is a wonderful character, one with a rich past and a terrific personality, yet he has skeletons in his closet. He has secrets that nobody else knows about. If you aren’t familiar with the source material, you may even question whether this man is good or bad due to a terrific balancing act and great display of skilled storytelling. Likewise, its themes, regardless of how closely one might argue it does or does not stick to the novel, are interesting, showing the power to love as a man’s greatest strength and, depending on how one approaches it, his greatest weakness.
This is a good story with good ideas and great performances that is told well. Furthermore, the tone and style of the film do indeed form a cohesive whole, but it left me cold. Its style, despite its cohesion, is misplaced. Sitting through “The Great Gatsby” is a frustrating endeavor because one can’t help but recognize that the final product almost certainly matches the director’s intentions, yet one must remember that the director’s intentions aren’t always of sound reasoning. This is a film that is surely going to be divisive due to this, but given its title, I personally expected something a little better.
The Great Gatsby receives 2/5