Imagine while Andy Kaufman read The Great Gatsby on stage, a bunch of people put on an improv of the book behind him based on what he was saying. That is the best synopsis of the feel and idea of this production that I can come up with. The story is there, the acting is solid, but you never know where you are supposed to be looking or if the entire production is laughing at you.
The plot is the same plot as the Great Gatsby. If you do not know that story, it’s around 200 pages and about 90 years old at the time of this writing. Get to it. Spoilers be damned.
The twist with this production is in the telling. Nick Carraway, our narrator, is seen here telling the story to a psychiatrist he is talking to and later writing the story down to purge his sinful drinking ways after the events of the story. What the f^%k is this business?
The story then pushes the idea that Nick is a reluctant writer all along, something that is not really needed. This framing device does not work because it turns the events onto Nick, who is best used as a reader avatar rather than a character. By giving him a personality beyond the book, we lose the realist who was telling us the story. I do not trust this man who is broken by the story because he is broken. This breaks the narrative by making me question who and what is telling this story. The framing device is useless and could have shaved at least ten minutes off of this bloated story or at least been used to wrap up the story a little tighter near the end.
The ending is another point of contention, but not really a big one. We get Nick’s rejection of Jordan Baker, but the resolution in the book of her ultimate fate is more satisfying than her disappearance in this movie. The carving of Gatsby’s father from the plot is also very understandable as it drug out points and a plot that had already finished, so I have no real issues with cutting that part out. Beyond these changes, as I said the plot is untouched and is complete for any great fan of the material. With the plot untouched, they had nowhere to go but to muck about with the characters, most notably Nick.
Did they muck about with the characters? Not really. The words are the same and in the right order and most times in the right setting and it all works. Beyond Leonardo Dicaprio's broken accent and some strange facial choices, this is the story. Most praise should go to the casting and performances, including Joel Edgerton as Tom and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan who fit the roles perfectly and seem custom fit for the parts. I had no idea that was Isla Fisher as Myrtle, who did a lively job with the limited time she had. Carey Mulligan stands out here as Daisy, so much so that I believe she was cast in my head as I read the book before I knew who she was. Just perfect. Like I mentioned, Mr. Dicaprio's accent did not hamper his presence, a good mix of pathos and pain, hope and desire to match the part although at times it came off as stale and one dimensional.
Whole books could be written about Tobey Maguire as Nick. I just do not know what the hell they were thinking. Beyond ruining him as a narrator, he was shoehorned in as the writer character Ewan Mcgregor played in Moulin Rouge (also by Baz Lehmer). I do not want to say what Mr. Maguire did was wrong, especially since I am not sure what he was supposed to be doing. He is both pants-poopingly overwhelmed one minute and finding secrets of the universe the next. The quiet moments work, but Mr. Maguire just feels too old and jaded to be as excited as he was supposed to be. I had vivid and horrible flashbacks to Spider-Man 3 during these boombastic times.
And speaking of the Superhero Movie That Shall Not Be Named Part 3, what the hell was up with the butler? I get giving a face and a voice to the phone as a symbol, but that dude just kept jumping out from nowhere to freak everybody out.
Speaking of the phone... to quote internet reviewer Film Brain... “SYMBOLISM.”
Yes. We understand. We all had basic american literature and understand color and object symbolism. The original novel was full of it. This movie is painted with it, slathered so thick in shot after shot of lights and cars and colors and sounds that one almost gets violently ill with the symbolism used as cinematography crammed down your throat. There is too much, overly too much of the book in this that the entire thing becomes unnatural.
Which takes us back up to the original idea I started with. I am not sure if this was the point, but I don’t know if this movie wanted me to like it. I did not see it in 3D, so many of the shots did seem off because that’s how they were made to be seen. I get that. But still, many other shots were frantically awkward or just staged and lit like a soap opera rather than a theatrical movie. And that may have been the point, but the ambiguity that I am feeling makes me believe that it was not the point and in fact this movie was rushed and looks like s@%t by necessity rather than invention.
The same about the music. I get that Baz Luhrmann enjoys putting anachronistic music in period pieces. The big sets with a “music video” feel to them worked, but the rest of the time the world is filled with slow jazz and punctuations of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that get annoyingly over the top rather than filling the world. I would love to praise Mr. Luhrmann for moments of silence that punctuate the story, but I cannot be sure those times were not just my brain blocking out the noise that filled the rest of the time.
If this movie is simply a way to get people to appreciate the subtleties of the book even more, then bravo. Success. If this movie is a way to point out the soap opera of life versus the want and need of an artist to find excitement and pain, then okay I guess? If this movie is someone’s idea of a play based on a book with some random loud dance contests and drunkenness thrown in... this movie has that, too. I just wish that vision was clear to me because I have already forgotten most of this.
Speaking of which, the “eyes” were so ham-fisted that I kept laughing and the high school girl in the flapper gear that didn’t know what kind of story she walked into stared at me so hard every damn time. I will always love the advertising for this movie giving the idea that there would be pretty lights and sounds and booty dancing flappers and not a dark tale of torrid adultery and death where the good guy dies and the bad guy gets the girl. Fuck yeah, subversive advertising.
Last thing, then I’ll stop: If you have seen this movie, answer me this: Did you want Joaquin Phoenix to step in and “swing away” on some aliens at the end of this movie? Who the fuck puts that much booze in glasses all around a house for a party? “Johnson, this book/table/desk/chair/lamp/duck doesn’t have a martini glass on it. Pass me the booze box.” And don’t give me that shit that people were setting their drinks down, those glasses were full and carefully placed around that library.
Weird d@%n choices like that kept taking me out of this movie.