The Great Gatsby doesn’t connect

May 17, 2013

By Kevin Hyde
May 16, 2013

The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann’s $100 million adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, is surprisingly reverent, at times even worshipful, of its source material. We hear large passages of the iconic prose effectively narrated by Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and at times even see the words and phrases float at us from the screen in 3-D.

Like the words, this movie just comes at you from the start and, like Luhrmann’s other pictures (Moulin Rouge, Australia, Romeo and Juliette), also keeps you at an irritating distance. Because it is extremely hard to connect emotionally with characters and situations—to feel empathy, or anger, or sadness, or elation, or anything soulfully humanistic—when there is this much visual stimulation.

It is always all too much with Baz Luhrmann, and such is the case with The Great Gatsby, which often feels like a garish, surreal, three-dimensional exhibit on Fitzgerald’s book. It can be interesting and, at moments, dizzyingly entertaining. But how many exhibits have ever moved you?

If you don’t know the story of The Great Gatsby, I would encourage you to read the book. It’s the epitome of the great American novel, and quite accessible. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Luhrmann’s movie is that it makes me want to revisit the book. It has been at least 20 years since I read it, so I can’t comment on what liberties the film takes. I am interested to hear what Fitzgerald fans and scholars think of the movie.

Set on ritzy Long Island Sound in the early 1920s, the story is told in flashback by Carraway, a Midwesterner who as a young man abandoned his dreams of being a writer in favor of playing the booming Stock Market. He is soon drawn into the extravagant realm of his enigmatic neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws lavish parties that Carraway describes as kaleidoscopic carnivals. Kaleidoscopic carnivals are what Baz Luhrmann does best, and the Gatsby parties depicted in the film are wildly and absurdly over the top.

Carraway soon learns that he has a connection to Gatsby through his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Five years previous—during The Great War—Gatsby met and fell in love with Daisy in her native Louisville while on leave from the Army. But circumstances prevented the two from getting hitched, and Daisy instead married the wealthy, womanizing sportsman Tom Buchanan, played with Clark Gable panache by Joel Edgerton. As the story unfolds, we soon learn the true obsession behind the mysterious Gatsby, one that leads to madness and tragedy.

There was much that I liked about Luhrmann’s movie. I’m a sucker for period films, and the Prohibition Era is one of my favorite cinematic periods. The movie isn’t all psychedelic glitz and color. The muted tones Luhrmann employs in early scenes established an endearing vintage feel.  And the casting and performances are great. DiCaprio has become a reliably solid film presence, and Tobey Maguire does excellent work serving as our eyes into this world. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who enjoyed Moulin Rouge probably will like The Great Gatsby.  

Like with Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann decided to inject his period movie with contemporary music, in this case, flourishes of hip-hop beats and rap. I wasn’t as outraged as I thought I would be by Jay Z’s soundtrack. It was mostly unobtrusive. But it was also a lost opportunity. The Great Gatsby is a timeless classic that also is so very much of and about its time. Using the music of the Roaring ’20s—the Jazz Age for bloody sake!—would have been much more interesting and exciting.

But maybe that’s fogyish of me. As I left the theater, I walked behind a young couple who looked to be in their mid-to-late 20s. The woman mumbled something about not enjoying the film, and the guy responded, The soundtrack was the only good thing about that movie.

For the first time in more than two hours, my passions were stirred. 

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Kevin Hyde

Kevin Hyde is a freelance writer who has worked as a reporter for daily and weekly newspapers, edited regional and national magazines, written on pop culture for an international newspaper as well as several local, alternative newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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