Although The Great Gatsby is considered by many critics to be one of the Great American Novels, I have never been a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of unrequited love among the rich and cynical. Then again, the educational Powers That Be thought I should read it while I was in high school, and I can’t imagine a readership less equipped to identify with its relationships and themes. It’s a story of class warfare between old money and new, and the manner in which the world and all its trappings can thwart the plans made by the heart. Maybe kids thinking about prom and Friday night football games shouldn’t be the judges of its literary merits.
As a film, The Great Gatsby both pleases and disappoints with its failures ultimately overwhelming the film. The audience will leave thinking about its potential and soon forget its accomplishments. It’s not a terrible movie. It’s just not a very good movie. It’s a melting pot of ideas, symbolism and visual styles looking for a cohesiveness it never finds.
The story is likely familiar. The mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives like a recluse in an exclusive mansion. The source of his wealth, his background and his breeding are the subject of gossip among the high society of New York City. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young Yale graduate and bond trader who moves into a small cottage on the edge of Gatsby’s estate. His only friend and acquaintance in the world of high society is his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives in her own palatial home across the water from Gatsby.
Daisy has married into old money, though her heart once belonged to a penniless Jay Gatsby who never returned from his service in World War I. Now he stands at the edge of his estate and stares longingly at the green beacon blinking at the end of Daisy’s dock and dreams of the life he intends for them to have together. After Gatsby learns of Nick’s relationship to Daisy, the wheels are set in motion to reunite the star-crossed lovers, but there will be casualties along the way, both real and emotional.
While the story does its best to hold the audience’s attention, there are far too many distractions on screen to successfully immerse the viewer in the world of Gatsby, Daisy and Nick. Every scene is so meticulously staged that the form and style of the film quickly outweighs its substance. Primary colors pop from the screen. The shine of polished silver and the glitter of the dresses distracts from the attempts at performances from the majority of the cast. Solely as a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby succeeds, and the use of 3D is on par with films like Hugo and Life of Pi. “It’s like an amusement park,” Nick says of Gatsby’s mansion, but he might as well have been discussing Baz Luhrmann’s film.
The never-ending voiceover by Tobey Maguire is, at best, obnoxious and is at times outright laughable. Instead of allowing the cast to show us the actions and emotions of their characters, the incessant reading of passages from the novel serves to tell us how they will react mere seconds before the film shows us. I certainly don’t need to buy the audio book of Fitzgerald’s novel because I’ve already heard it. I had never really given the art of voiceover narration much thought, but after the dreadful use of it in Pain & Gain earlier this year and once more in this film it clearly should be more than an afterthought in the mind of a director.
The film lacks subtlety, both visually and narratively. The symbolism from the novel is wielded like a bludgeon. There are incessant shots of the light at the end of Daisy’s dock beckoning Gatsby to enter a world in which he will never be accepted. The all-seeing eyes of the optometrist’s billboard gaze dispassionately upon the proceedings. And in case you missed its significance, the voiceover states, “The eyes of God see everything”, almost every time the billboard makes an appearance in the film.
The lone performance worthy of favorable mention is that of Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character. Despite his boyish good looks, his performance has the gravitas needed to make the audience believe he has clawed and scraped his way to the top of the social heap in pursuit of the love of his life. Following his frightening turn as a plantation-owning sociopath in Django Unchained, DiCaprio has proven that his career will be alive and well when his matinee idol looks begin to give way to gray hair and creases around his eyes. Period films have a way of making young actors look like they’re “playing dress up”, but DiCaprio inhabits the character of Gatsby comfortably.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Carey Mulligan as Daisy. She plays one of the most famous love interests in the history of literature with such blandness that the audience will have no idea why Gatsby spent five years making plans to win her back. You’re not likely to remember the character or Mulligan’s performance five minutes after you leave the theater.
As a visual extravaganza, The Great Gatsby is worth the price of admission. If you are a filmgoer who enjoys the art of how a movie is framed, lit, and shot (as I am), then you will find the film satisfying as an academic exercise. If you are looking for characters to identify with, a compelling storyline, performances that suck you into the narrative, and the assured hand of a director guiding you through a story, then you need to look elsewhere. For all the talent assembled in front of, and behind, the camera, The Great Gatsby realizes very little of its potential.
6 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.