5 Things That Too Many People Are Getting Wrong About The Great Gatsby

the great gatsby leonardo dicaprio carey mulligan12 5 Things That Too Many People Are Getting Wrong About The Great Gatsby

No one seems to be able to agree on anything about The Great Gatsby. The movie, that is. The book incites all sorts of debate every time some English major finds an excuse to bring it up, but the movie is the first one of this year where people are scrambling to find a way to talk about that makes them sound like they’ve got it figured out.

I’m probably going to sound like I’m doing the same thing, but I’m going to proceed optimistically anyhow. I think this movie is the best thing to come out this year so far. At the time of writing this, I’ve only seen it once, so subsequent viewings could confirm or refute this opinion. I also read the book something like ten years ago, the same as most people from the sounds of it. I’m a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy but wasn’t all that into Australia. I thought every single Gatsby trailer was absolutely gorgeous but had no idea how the images they presented could sustain an entire film. I was skeptical for the first hour of the actual movie, but I soon oriented myself and was convinced by the end that it had nailed this material. There are all my cards.

So I’ve spent a lot of my time since seeing the movie poring over pages of reviews, positive and negative, trying to figure out what people were seeing. Evidently, people are as torn over the movie as many were over the book when it initially came out. Maybe in 30 years we’ll see more impassioned defenses of Luhrmann’s movie, but it would be nice to see more now.

There are 5 things main reviewers seem to be objecting to or generally highlighting in The Great Gatsby. Here’s why I think they’re missing some of the point.

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1) It’s too much like the book/not enough like the book.

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These are both things I’ve come across to varying effects. I want to say “it can’t be both of these things at once” but there’s an extent to which it can be, I suppose. While there are a number of critics protesting the movie’s use of Nick Carraway’s narration, there are a number who are praising it as a useful and effective device. More on that in a minute. For everyone who says the best scenes of the movie take place during Gatsby’s extravagant and excessive parties, which are full of undeniably dazzling and lively images, there are others who blast Luhrmann’s signature style as vulgar and tasteless. And so the movie takes a surprising turn for a Luhrmann work and gets quiet, deliberate, and stripped down for one noteworthy scene, and this causes some to admire the unexpected departure and others to decry the movie’s unevenness and try to argue that that scene is anything but masterfully executed. Goddamnit, you guys.

One could make the case that all the negative responses to these individual aspects could amount to someone hating the movie entirely. That’s fair, I guess. But then there would have to be a reverse case to be made that every one of them does in fact work. I guess that’s the position I’m in, though even a step further. I think this is certainly the most fulfilling visualization of the novel we’ve had to date (not a high bar to cross), and one of the most faithful yet imaginative adaptations of a classic work to be made in a longass time. It expresses the ideas in the book in a brand new way, but in a way that, after some reflection, is remarkably accurate to the source material. The characters in particular are fleshed out in a way that is truly remarkable; the one thing everyone seems to agree on, literally the one thing I can seem to find consensus around, is that Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is about as perfect a portrayal of the character imaginable. But you’ll still see about half of reviewers saying Luhrmann doesn’t give a damn about the material and the other half saying he’s too reverent.

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2) The mechanism employing the Carraway narration doesn’t work.

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This was an impression that I agreed with for perhaps the first half of the film. Having Tobey Maguire reading the Fitzgerald prose over the images seems heavy-handed and awkward at first glance. But I found this view harder to maintain the more I was forced to face the fact that Nick Carraway is himself a rich yet elusive character, and possibly the primary character of this story. His subjectivity is the center of the book, and so making it the center of the movie seems appropriate, even essential. Visually representing this subjectivity can only go so far, and when you have words as beautiful as Fitzgerald’s at your disposal, Luhrmann seems to be unable to resist employing them. Hard to blame him for that.

The choice to have Carraway in rehab writing his account on the possible source of his problems with booze is actually, dare I say, inspired. This puts a whole new level of insight into Nick, making his process of trying to figure out what it is about Gatsby that fascinates him so much the principal quest of the film. It’s a movie about a writer. Having him in the sanatorium also highlights the autobiographical aspect of Nick Carraway essentially being a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself, whose personal history with alcohol abuse was drawn from for this addition to the story. The prose then becomes a source of healing, its inspiration serving as medicine or relief for Nick’s tortured mind. I’ve also never been the type to be offended by literary exposition in movies if it serves more than one purpose, as I would say it does here. I don’t know, it worked for me.

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3) It spells out its themes too explicitly.

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Ok, maybe. I’ve long made the case that movies and TV shows that make their intentions and messages obvious aren’t necessarily lacking in subtlety in other areas, nor are those that seem obscure inherently superior in terms of thematic or textual richness. Layers of meaning can exist just as easily in boisterous movies like The Great Gatsby just as easily as they can in more subdued movies like Amour. Whether obvious or subtle, if there’s only one idea to derive from a piece of work, I find it the same either way.

I say this because often there’s a lot to a blockbuster movie that gets obstructed in people’s minds by stuff at the forefront that acts as a sort of diversion from subtler things going on at the same time. I found this to be the case with Gatsby. Yes, just like in the book, there are a lot of themes that are made abundantly clear by one of the characters, or by the Nick Carraway narration. You can’t relive the past, stupid. Class is a bitch. The American Dream is an unsatisfiable illusion. The movie is aware of how obvious this stuff is, I think. It pokes fun at it a little bit. Every now and then you’ll hear a character spell out something we already know in what seems to be a clearly satirical way, even little mundane details spoken in dialogue that sounds like “Have you met my cousin? This is my cousin, Nick. He’s my cousin.” So there are these big subjects the movie addresses, but it handles them in a fairly specific way. Some beats that stand out are the way Gatsby continues to look longingly at the green light even when Daisy is in his arms; the fact that Gatsby is far more concerned for Myrtle than Daisy is; his adoption of the term “old sport” as a way of addressing everyone around him, and all that is supposed to signify to his addressees. Just to name a few. There’s lots more that I’m sure I’ll remember when I watch it again.

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4) That scene everyone describes at the hotel as being melodramatic.

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This may seem like a minor point but it’s one that I find extremely revealing. A number of reviews describe the style of Baz Luhrmann as melodramatic. Having seen Australia, I can sort of understand where it comes from. I would think of Moulin Rouge as satirical maybe, or farcical. There are some moments in The Great Gatsby that I can concede are indeed melodramatic, to a deliberate effect. The long scenes with Gatsby and Daisy specifically are done in this way, but that’s for a thematic purpose: to show that they’re inauthentic moments and shallow emotions. The movie is bursting with inauthenticity. Because it’s about a guy who’s a total phony. Surely that’s artistically justifiable.

That scene, though. It’s easy to see why it stands apart from the rest of the movie. It’s a deliberate departure from the notes that Luhrmann strikes for the entire span of film that precedes it. The reason it is so shocking is that it is one of the few moments where we see these characters express anything remotely true. They’re exposed for brief seconds at a time before receding back into their designated characters. The fact that the scene extends for quite a long time, in stark defiance toward anyone claiming Baz Luhrmann can do nothing but be an ADD filmmaker, stretches out the tension, to the point where it’s nearly unbearable. It reminded me of the opening scene to Inglourious Basterds. The point is, to describe this segment of the movie as melodramatic is a sign of someone who seems to have stopped paying attention some time after the party scenes. This is as real as period movies get.

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5) The movie is inauthentic, so at least it’s worthy of Gatsby!

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This is one of the most pervasive points that comes up again and again in the reviews, but from as far as I can tell, it’s meant as a criticism. I don’t understand this, except in the sense that AO Scott expressed it in the New York Times, ending his review stating that the movie is “gaudily and grossly inauthentic,” therefore worthy of Gatsby. But even this, I think, fails to grasp the real point to this widely observed note.

The movie is Gatsby. It projects an air of spectacle and excess, trying to maintain energy and using gimmickry like 3D to command the crowd’s attention. But when you look closely, there are little cracks here and there, little unpolished elements that stick out and draw you in even more. I’m not sure what people expect from a Gatsby movie. It’s as though they want the movie to take on the attitude of Nick Carraway, observing the action from the outside, but as the narration in the movie harps on, the character exists both inside and outside. That’s impossible to achieve if the movie adopts the sensibility of Nick. It has to take on the identity of Gatsby, which puts us in the position of Nick, being taken in by the spectacle, even revelling in it at times, feeling close to Gatsby and at times sympathetic, but also just distant enough to be able to contemplate it.

It seems as though the opinions on this movie are like the opinions on Gatsby himself—widely variant, based on a lot of speculation, agenda-driven. The publicity as well as Baz Luhrmann’s involvement ensured the film would be preceded by an enormous and controversial reputation. I can’t help but feel when I’m reading all these reviews that their words are revealing far more about the critics who have presented them than they do about the movie itself (if you read them pretending they’re Tom Buchanan talking about Gatsby you may not even be able to tell the difference). Every now and then a movie comes along and does this, which is tremendously interesting for anyone like me who is fascinated by critical discourse. Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of The Great Gatsby is this effect, that when asked about it, answers range widely from hatred to sheepish admiration. More people ought to take on the boldness of Nick Carraway and be less afraid to refer to this imperfectly perfect movie with that most elusive of cinematic descriptors: great.

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  • Noelle

    I really appreciate this review of The Great Gatsby. Baz’s creative genius deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated, regardless of anyone’s own personal opinion of the film. Thank you for your well-spoken, truthful words!

  • JoseSD

    So what do you think, will this finally be the one DiCaprio wins the Oscar for

  • VoudeauxChild

    I was less than impressed by the whole film. This will be in Walmart’s $5 bargain bin by the end of summer.

  • http://twitter.com/meganmiristecyk Megan Miri

    Number 5 is on the money. The scene where Gatsby and Nick drive into New York together, and Gatsby is expounding on his fictional history, you see the dash of the car for a second and it is like, completely cardboard flat. That’s not unnecessarily inauthentic or vulgar, that’s engagingly intentional.