There were two grade 9 English classes in my school. Mine got Fahrenheit 451 and the other got the Great Gatsby. That was the first time I remember hearing about this fabled book that means so much to so many people (myself included). Mostly the reviews were bad, typical of a class of sluggish students trying to wade through literature that was mostly lost on them. Fortunately I waited until later to read it. It was after I discovered a love of American literature from the 1920s. It seemed logical that Steinbeck and Hemingway would keep close company with F. Scott Fitzgerald on my bookshelf.
I was initially excited for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the Great Gatsby. The trailer promised big things. It took the best song from the soundtrack and all the best parts of the story. It captured the decadence without going into rap music video mode (a tragic place that the movie strays into far too often). Drawn out into a full-length film that lightness of touch was utterly lost. From the beginning I knew that the subtly of the book was not going to be prized. In full CGI (we didn’t cough up for 3D) we see the green light at the end of the dock. Allusion is best done with subtlety. References should be something that one must catch instead of something that slaps you aggressively in the face and waves its arms in the air to ensure that you notice it. The green light at the end of the dock and the billboard that alludes to the famous cover of the novel are like a teenager acting out to grab their parents’ attention. They cannot be missed and are over used to the point of being annoying. If Gilmore Girls taught us anything it is that references are a spice that is best used lightly to be deciphered only by those with a delicate palate. This is how movies develop layers, something the film is seriously lacking.
The movie is frantic and chaotic. The parties take on the feel of a rap music video. There is so much going on here, too much going on. Nobody seems to have invited subtlety to any of these parties. The car scenes are a haze of CGI and Times Square is a digital whirl. Everything is exciting and buzzing on the surface but the tone is strange and off. In between the chaos there are too many WTF moments to count. Too many choices that leave me confused and trying to place the link between the book and what is happening on the screen.
The film reminds me very much of the screen adaptation of Watchman. It is a shallow version of a great and subtle work of literature. Where Gatsby and Watchman were built on layers, the films are one-dimensional. Everything sits at the surface with no discoveries to be made. The depth is lost through cheap overexposure. They are visually appealing, but that is not what made the stories great in the first place. Tone is far more important than anything you can do with CGI.
The best part of the movie is the casting. Everyone is well-suited to their roles, at the very least Luhrmann gets this right. Leonardo DiCaprio makes an excellent Gatsby. He captures the famous charm of Gatsby — his delicacy, his determination, his delusions and his ability to look at people as they themselves want to be seen. Tobey MaGuire makes an excellent Nick Carraway — the innocent outsider not quite fitting in and very much enamoured of Gatsby. Sadly the cast are wasted with everything else in the film.