I consider myself an unofficial scholar of Baz Luhrmann’s films. (Well, considering that I wrote several papers in college about Moulin Rouge, maybe I’m a legit scholar…) I walked into The Great Gatsby ready to be visually assaulted and expecting a Meh film, having read mixed reviews and not being wholly impressed with Luhrmann’s last film (Australia). I walked out of the theater both pleasantly surprised and similarly unimpressed. The Great Gatsby is a colorful and wildly manic film with quiet moments, but feels like a retread of all of Luhrmann’s past projects. We know Luhrmann is a master of heightened reality – and that actually works for The Great Gatsby – but I’m ready for something different.
The Great Gatsby has been called Moulin Rouge 2.0 and that’s not too far off. Both films feature highly anachronistic music to score/underscore a real time in history with fictitious characters. Bright costumes, amazing production design and pretty young things splash across the screen via quick edits and other visual illusions. Wild parties and the illusion of having it all tantalize the characters and the audience until everyone realizes (sometimes too late) that the high life does not last forever.
Full disclosure – I read The Great Gatsby once in high school when everyone was forced to read this American classic. I didn’t retain much from it except that it was set in New York and that Jay Gatsby loved Daisy Buchanan (who is already married) who was cousin to Nick Carraway who lived next to/was friends with Gatsby. As I watched the film, I found myself wondering if the book had as heavy homosexual undertones as the film did (with regard to Carraway and Gatsby). In my opinion, while watching the film, it appeared that Nick was very fond of Gatsby and seemed to admire him as a little bit more than a friend. There was no actual physical contact or outright declaration of feelings for Gatsby, but at the same time, Carraway seemed to be in the middle of the Kinsey scale. In the film, he only made out with women when he was drunk and he never sought any sort of relationship with the golfer (who was the only other lead character that was “single” besides Gatsby… who was in love with Daisy, so he wasn’t really “single” in his own mind). I didn’t mind this – I just didn’t remember this from the book.
Other Luhrmann fans likely saw parallels and/or people from his previous films. The father from Strictly Ballroom was seen at Gatsby’s parties. I already mentioned the use of music (though instead of pop songs, The Great Gatsby relied heavily on rap and R&B), but The Great Gatsby also utilized some of the same types of camera moves and filters seen in prior Luhrmann pictures. I opted not to see The Great Gatsby in 3D (as I think 3D films are a waste of money, as well as uncomfortable to sit through as I have to wear the 3D glasses on top of my regular glasses), but I don’t think I really missed out on anything. This wasn’t one of those films where objects are thrust out from the screen – it seemed more of a depth perception thing. In that case, 2D suited me just fine.
I’m used to the flashiness of Luhrmann films (Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge) as well as the grandiose period piece (Moulin Rouge; Australia) and The Great Gatsby fits into both categories. There were a lot of “in your face” sequences where people were dancing and partying, but then there were also some quieter moments where the audience was just supposed to be in awe of the sheer size of the property Gatsby owned.
One of my favorite recurring themes of the film was the sense of being alone even though one is physically surrounded by so much. The three main characters (Gatsby, Daisy and Nick) all are lonely people who are often in the midst of something crazy. Gatsby throws these lavish parties, but no one seems to know him or see him that much. Daisy lives in a huge house, but her husband has a mistress and she seems to be all by herself even though she’s got family and friends. Nick lives alone, but is often immersed in somebody else’s world. Even when there is a crowd of people, he often comments how he is “within” and “without” in these situations. You’re supposed to want to envy these characters and the lives they live, but it’s hard to do so when they are just as miserable as they are content (maybe even more so).
I’m a huge Leonardo DiCaprio fan and have been for years, so I was not going to pass up a chance to see him on the big screen. Though Gatsby is one man, you could tell Leo was playing two roles. There was the Jay Gatsby who threw big parties and lived large, calling everyone “Old Sport” and being the link to a lot of people. But there was also Jay Gatsby, the quiet man who was in love with Daisy. The one who dropped his heirs and vulnerably said “Hi” to Daisy after seeing her for the first time in five years. This latter Gatsby was my favorite of the two – seeing someone so sure and yet completely unsure, but somehow still willing to wear his heart on his sleeve. I fell for this Gatsby when he was in his sweater and chinos instead of a three piece suit. With his boyish grin, you would have thought this was Leo circa 1997, when Jack and Rose were frolicking about the Titanic pre-iceberg. I couldn’t help but grin too (even though I knew the ending of the story, which I won’t spoil for anyone), because it’s just real nice seeing people find each other again after an extended period of time.
Conversely, I also like it when characters flip out on screen – and there was plenty of that in The Great Gatsby. That much anger and betrayal among characters made for some cuh-razy shouting matches. As odd as this sounds, Angry Leo is actually a comforting sight for me (see also: The Departed), so I eagerly took in the scenes where Old Sport Gatsby completely lost his shit and got all red in the face as he screamed at whomever was antagonizing him in that particular scene.
I didn’t not like The Great Gatsby, but I also wasn’t completely over the moon for it. The aesthetic was great (if a repeat of prior Luhrmann films) and the cast was solid. I found the film ran a bit long (nearing two and a half hours, I began yawning during some of the “quieter” moments toward the end) and was very self-indulgent. However, since a lot of the people in the film were self-indulgent, it kind of was fitting (if a bit grating at times).
I don’t think I’ll need to own this one (I do have Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge and even Australia… for reasons), but I was grateful to have seen The Great Gatsby once in theaters. This kind of film’s visuals work best on a huge screen, so it’s bits with manic pacing and all the color and spectacle of it all can be properly enjoyed.