Review by Derek
How exactly does one review a movie like The Great Gatsby which has already been reviewed a million times? What is left to say? Well, by the sheer number of reviews, I guess plenty. This movie has been a hot topic among reviewers who seem to either love it or hate it, with very little middle ground.
The Great Gatsby is based off of the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though this is apparently the 6th film adaptation, many reviewers lament that this is an unfilmable book because of the inner dialogue in much of it.
For full disclosure, I must say this: I’ve not seen any other film adaptation of the book , nor have I read the book. So I have less to hate about the movie than some others. I suppose there are some positives to that stance. Once someone said to me that they never wanted to learn much about music or develop a critical ear for it because they enjoyed music too much. I find myself in a similar situation. With all of this being said, it must be noted that my conclusions about what the movie portrays may not be what the book tried to portray. That is either an indictment of the movie, or of me.
Following you will find a brief synopsis of the film, and then remarks on the most talked about aspects of it: sound, look, feel, performances, and morality.
The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting the tale (verbally at first, and then in writing) of his past with Jay Gatsby (Leo D.) to his psychiatrist. This past with Gatsby seems to be what has landed him into the psychiatrist’s chair, depressed and with a drinking problem. Previously Carraway had moved to New York to be a bonds salesmen (giving up on his dream of being a writer), living in a small Long Island house. His neighbor is the mysterious Gatsby.
Carraway visits his close cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who live just across the lake from him. To make a long story incredibly short, we find out that Gatsby purposely moved into his luxurious mansion and began holding lavish parties in an attempt to lure Daisy over. They met previously while Gatsby was in WWI and fell in love, but he did not pursue a relationship after the war because he was penniless and she was of an upper class. Since then he had worked to totally reinvent himself into the impressive and powerful (but ultimately incredibly insecure) Jay Gatsby. His name was not his real name, and his past was not his real past, but he wanted to desperately to be seen as worthy in Daisy’s eyes.
On many nights, Gatsby walks out to the end of his pier and looks across the water at Tom and Daisy’s house. They have a blinking green light at the end of their own pier which Gatsby gazes at. It comes to represent the conquest, the one object he desires that he has yet to acquire.
Gatsby uses Carraway to get his cousin Daisy to come to one of the parties. It is then that their dynamic love is rekindled. But this once bright, shining, and promising star of a romance quickly turns into a destructive black hole with deadly consequences.
The soundtrack to this film is anachronistic, including many well-placed hip hop songs (but not just hip hop). At one point in the film, we see a car of dancing socialites listening to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. Another Jay-Z song (100$ Bill) plays over the top of a montage about the booming stock market in the early 20s. Some don’t like this touch, but I thought it all worked very well to capture the feel of the times. It was a way of contextualizing the music to our times. The message may have been missed if director Baz Luhrmann decided to go with period jazz music, the rebel music of its day. So instead he went with hip hop, the rebel music of our own time.
I enjoyed the rest of the music as well, and it helped in building a full atmosphere, aiding in the communication of a scene. If you would like to know more, just Google “Great Gatsby soundtrack” and read, or listen to song samples from it.
This movie was one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. The set designs, the colors, the outfits, the cars, everything. It was a visually stunning piece. Even when they are in the “valley of ashes”, an industrial cesspool-like area, there is a beauty to the wretchedness of the forsaken land. Its simplicity and neglectedness (new word?) is thick. Behind the walls are people dying to get out, or those who have accepted their fate to die within. It is not a breeding ground of hope. It is the ugly reality that stands behind the glitz and glamour of everything else seen in the movie. Nothing is really different between this area and, say, Gatsby’s parties, except for the fresh paint. Brokenness hides much better behind fresh paint and gold plating.
This movie, as one review put it, “emphasizes visual splendor at the expense of its source material’s vibrant heart” (Rotten Tomatoes). Other reviewers likened the movie to an intense sugar rush of bright images, quick and sloppy edits, and multiple songs. Even I would have to admit that at times it seemed more like a long music video rather than an actual movie. I must say again that I have not read the book, and so I can’t comment on the losing of the “source material’s vibrant heart,” but from what I understand of the movies attack on socialite and materialistic culture, I think it works incredibly well. The scenes themselves are mostly shallow, mimicking the characters they contain and relationships they contain. There are many ways one could attack this type of book, and Luhrmann goes for feel. In that I think he succeeds. The scenes are wild and over the top, full of booze and loose morals. It’s all who you know and who you can become. What else is there to life?
The actors all did a fantastic job. Look on IMDB at the cast list and you will see a list of established actors, and those that are still being discovered somewhat and more appreciated (Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton). Famed Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan makes a brief but very memorable appearance as the dark and powerful (and incredibly creepy) Meyer Wolfsheim. As impressive as sets were, and as impressive as the overall look of the film was, the performances were just as important. Some films may go for all look with no performance, but this is not one.
The Morals ***SPOILER ALERT: Potential spoilers included in this section***
As I have come to understand, the original book is an indictment of materialistic culture. This has been brought up by many commentators who look at the irony of people who, in honor of the book and movies, throw lavish Gatsby Parties today (“The book is meant to condemn decadence, not celebrate it”). The themes here of greed, pride, idol worship, materialism, etc. are not new. When one sees the hopelessness in this lifestyle is when crises erupt. It is at this point that one either runs further into the darkness and madness, or comes to the light.
Gatsby worshiped Daisy, and so acquired many things to attract her mutual worship. Rather than getting her, though, he received the worship of many, many others. He did eventually acquire her, briefly. But once he did, it was not as fulfilling as he had thought. It seems that she had ceased to become a true love, and rather became another artifact to collect. He was at a loss as to what to do with her once he got her. But she, in the end, proved to be elusive to even his charms and objects.
When Gatsby himself fell, an idol broken and shattered by a bullet, Daisy did not come to the funeral. None of the thousands of party goers came, either. It was only Carraway who, in that moment, saw the fruitlessness of such exploits.
These themes are not new. They are ancient and universal. Many thoughtful pagan Greco-Roman writers saw the hopelessness of worshiping idols and putting hope in perishable things, whether it be created objects or our own bodies. Sophocles wrote that, because of the hopelessness of life, it was best to not be born; if that could not be avoided, then dying as soon as possible was the next best thing. Catullus writes that though the sun can set and rise again, once our brief light sets, there is but one unending night to be slept through. There is a very real existential despair of life in pagan thought which, in Gatsby’s world, in hidden by fresh paint, gold plating, and one green light.
It was in this type of a vacuum of hope that Christianity flourished, though heavily persecuted, in the 1st and 2nd centuries throughout the Roman Empire. Christianity offered hope not in anything dead or dying, but in Christ, who defeated death in resurrection and is living. This is why Peter writes to the “exiles of the Dispersion” (i.e. believers in the Roman Empire), telling them that they have been born into a “living hope … an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading … through faith … which is more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:3-7). It is easy to see why this message would be so powerful to people then, and is still powerful to millions now. This hope remains as an anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19) in the midst of a deep, dark sea. Soli Deo Gloria!
I give this movie a strong 4/5. I really enjoyed the style and the message. Behind the bright lights and shiny outfits, it was dark, gritty, and hard-hitting. Baz Luhrmann creates an hypnotic atmosphere that drew me in and refused to let go. Some of the negative comments on the movie are deserved. Some of the editing is a bit awkward. But to judge how good or bad a movie is based on how well it captures the novel isn’t exactly fair. If you love the novel, then read the novel. A movie cannot do what a book can, and a book cannot do what a movie can. They are two separate mediums, and you should probably just accept it and move on. The movie is beautiful, the acting is superb, the story is something we can all relate to, and the music is excellent.
And in the immortal words of Levar Burton: “But you don’t have to take my word for it …”