by Eric Paolini
Underneath all the glitz and glamour of Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby adaptation is a terrible film. The Great Gatsby is big and vibrant, but all that is surface and meaningless. So many aspects of this film do not work, and it all begins with Luhrmann.
The combination of Luhrmann and a roaring twenties, period piece seem like a perfect fit. The time period was what Luhrmann was most fascinated with causing the neglect of what should have been key elements: characters and story. But it's the parties that he cares about and focuses on. While the parties look great, at least in the sense that I would like to attend one, it's clear Luhrmann doesn't fully comprehend the role of this backdrop in the story he's telling. The party atmosphere needs to be juxtaposed to the dissatisfaction the characters have with their lives. The excess of the era doesn't make them happier.
Throughout the film the role things like music, directing, and scene staging add nothing to the story. The majority of scenes purpose is not to propel the story forward or tell us something about the characters but for simple visual interest. In the first act, which is essentially a big party using narration for most of the exposition, Luhrmann spends equal time with the main characters and those that aren't. This gives so much more knowledge than necessary about what goes on at these parties. I would have preferred to see the parties through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) or Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Instead we spend time with characters we do not know the name of in over-choreographed dance numbers looking at Gatsby in the distance (I have absolutely no idea why there is so much overt choreographing). Spending more time with Nick or Gatsby could have limited the amount of narration needed.
Narration isn't the only example of excess. In fact, most things are excessive. In every scene there is way too much going on and Lurhmann wants to show you all of it. The camera moves so much especially early on. Usually I like camera movement. Darren Aronofosky's use of the Snorri cam in Requiem for a Dream is captivating and beautiful. Tom Hooper's use of the steadicam in Les Misérables is mesmerizing. But Lurhmann seemingly flings the camera around creating a lot of movement that ultimately accomplishes nothing. Why do we need to know what some unnamed partygoer is doing? We can spend time with our main characters and notice that in the background.
Many aspects of The Great Gatsby appear to not be tethered to each other. The film's pacing and tone is inconsistent. One minute we're in the middle of a raucous party and then everything calms and quiets down for some dialogue. Many times this is not done seamlessly and once whatever is said we go right back to the party. When given the opportunity to create some visually appealing aspect on the screen Lurhmann takes it and then some. The final few scenes take twice as long as necessary because Lurhmann decided to have the narration written out on screen as well. And times when scenes should have been allowed to breathe, we're hurried through the necessary dialogue with heavy handed score to make sure we know what emotion we should be feeling.
Musically, this film is a mess. Why is it okay to have jazz, hip hop, and an orchestral sound. The use of hip hop, and other modern music, is truly mystifying. The film is set in the twenties. If the decision was to have hip hop used throughout to help illustrate the tone of these parties I could understand. I would still hate it because it's contempt for your audience assuming they know nothing of the twenties. But it's not consistent making it stand out all the more.
What is the most frustrating about The Great Gatsby is that there is a good movie here. I like the story of Gatsby and the actors cast did a fine job given what they had to do. (Under a different director their performances could be much improved. But they weren't given much to work with since the characters were so minimized in this adaptation). Luhrmann did a fine job adhering to F. Scott Fitzgerald's original work. But all the importance was taken out. This movie does not need to tell the story of Gatsby. Luhrmann could have picked anything set in the twenties and did the same things.
There is a scene in this film that shows that Luhrmann could have made a good movie. Granted, it was in the third act and the damage had already been done. The scene consists of our five main characters sitting in a hotel room where only Tom Buchanan and Gatsby are doing all of the talking. It is a phenomenally directed scene. Little camera movement, no music, or at least minimal music, and these two actors carrying the scene. This scene is a good encapsulation of what could have been because Luhrmann couldn't resist. At the end unnecessary music punches in, the camera starts to move, and everything becomes melodramatic.
The Great Gatsby could have been good. And maybe Luhrmann could have been at the helm for the good version. But his focus (may I go so far as say borderline obsession) with visuals completely undermines this movie. Never have I been so confused as to a directors choices. So in that sense, Gatsby will stick with me.
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