I had not read The Great Gatsby before I saw the film, despite its reputation as possibly THE great American novel. The early reviews of the film had almost put me off seeing it purely on the basis that it might give away the plot points while delivering none of the satisfaction, thus ruining the book. With that in mind, let’s get the verdict out of the way right up front. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is almost as dumb, empty, dull and needlessly shiny as a Transformer’s movie. I’ll add a caveat – in my opinion. Walking out of the film it seemed I was the only one who felt this way, with the gaggle around me all having enjoyed it, including my other half. They are wrong though. Let me explain why.
The novel is purportedly about the emptiness of wealth, how it lacks meaning, how love is more important. It is also about the passage of time. Time doesn’t stand still. Emotions you held, connections you made, do not last forever, and we must all move with the times. It is about the class system, about coming from money as opposed to becoming money, the gentry versus the nouveau riche.
On the surface, all of this is present in the film, but that’s the problem, on the surface. There is nothing underneath. While the book may present the emptiness of wealth, the film is obsessed by what money can buy and what fun can be had if only you have the money to pay for it – cars, women, alcohol. Far from emptiness, the film suggests that this is what we should strive for.
The characters are paper thin, always saying exactly what they mean with nothing left to read between the lines. The actors do what they can but are ultimately left floundering. Nobody is presented as likeable. I don’t think anyone does anything nice towards another human being at any point during the course of the action. Relationships between characters are established because we are told about their feelings – we are rarely shown actions which demonstrate their emotions. Clear cases of tell don’t show.
But that’s not to say the film shows nothing. I think much of the praise the film has garnered (from those exiting around me) stems from the various set pieces. It’s true that the parties, which are gloriously designed with sumptuous Busby Berkley-style dances, are a marvel to look at and for those easily entertained by bright sparkly things – such as those Transformers fans – this film offers plenty. There are exciting (though totally needless) car trips at speeds and with handling which appears totally unrealistic. I dislike the dismissive nature of saying such things look like “a computer game”, but these sequences certainly gave the impression of a sprite sliding across a screen rather than anything with any degree of physicality. Indeed, I could name a number of computer games which offer a greater sense of both speed and realism in their car chase elements than this Gatsby does.
But let’s back up a moment. What’s the story? Briefly, Jay Gatsby (Di Caprio) moves into a vast mansion next door to a small cottage owned by bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and hosts grand parties without ever really revealing himself. Carraway (and Gatsby) live on the opposite shore of a bay to Carraway’s cousin, Daisy Buchanon, and her husband Tom. Both Tom and Daisy hail from families of established wealth. Gatsby befriends Carraway with the intent of, ultimately, rekindling things with Daisy, whom he knew some 5 years previous when he was just leaving the army.
Carraway is our narrator, our guide to these people and events, and he fails to turn any of the people he introduces us to into real people. They are ciphers, pawns, there to represent whatever it is that is being said, not to inhabit a world or to react to each other. There are moments when both Tom and Gatsby explode in a kind of rage but it doesn’t seem to stem from the events in the scene, more because at that point they need to react that way to enable the story to move forward.
For a book that is supposed to be about how money is no substitute for humanity, Luhrmann has managed to make a film which shows that money spent on the screen is no substitute either. Perhaps that was the point, but he could have least made it interesting, he could have at least found one likeable character, or one believable character. And anyway, if that was his point, he kind of ruined it by telling us all to judge his Gatsby based on the box office.
Instead, the film seems to say that money is what we should all desire, but equally that we should all stick to our station. If you dream too highly, you will be like Icarus and come crashing down into the waves.
D- (the gentleman’s F)