Opening a bit bigger than expected this past weekend and getting ready to explode confetti over crowds at Cannes later this week, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, is totally ridiculous. It’s a rococo doodle, one full of flash and dazzle and sparkle, but empty inside, which would be an apt metaphor for the titular character if Luhrmann would slow down long enough to establish such things (even if he did bother to try to the make the connection, it would probably be besieged by schizophrenic cutting and accompanied by a Jay-Z song). In fact, it was something of a chore to narrow down the list of the most ridiculous things about “The Great Gatsby” to just five. We could go on and on all day. Oh, and spoiler warning old sport.
While we seem to be ragging on “The Great Gatsby” pretty hard (read our review here), it is probably worth seeing, if only to join in the discussion (the title sequence is pretty cool, honestly, and there are sporadic moments of genuine wonderment). And after you watch it, please, come back, and tell us if we’re totally off-the-mark or if we’re forgetting some things even more worthy of dissection. Onward…..
1. “Old Sport” Is Not A Catchphrase
Leonardo DiCaprio says “old sport.” A lot. It pretty much serves as a suffix to almost everything else he says. Yes, it’s a part of the novel and yes it says something about his character – a cultivated affect that he stole from someone whose wealth was actually a more intrinsic part of their person – but after the big reveal about where it came from (which goes over about as well as that episode of “Lost” where you find out why Desmond calls everyone “brother”), the amount of “old sport”s could have been diminished significantly. It is not. Repetition is part of the Baz Luhrmann playbook – from the shot of the sooty billboard to the phrase “old sport” to that damn Lana Del Rey song (of which there are a few different versions) – one that is just as tired as hearing Leonardo DiCaprio utter the same phrase ad infinitum. And for a movie that is already wildly one-dimensional in terms of its characters, saddling Gatsby with a catchphrase doesn’t help. Remember when Jeremy Renner couldn’t stop saying "chems" in "The Bourne Legacy"? It’s like that, but about ten thousand, glitter-covered times worse, and at least Aaron Cross needed those pills.
2. The (Broken) Framing Device
Admittedly, the first hour of “The Great Gatsby” is its most breathlessly entertaining, at least in a sort of high-off-the-exhaust-fumes-at-a-monster-truck-rally kind of way. But that first hour is marred, almost immediately, by the god-awful, wholly invented framing device of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), institutionalized (for what exactly? Alcoholism? Depression? Over-acting?) and telling his story to a sympathetic shrink. Not only does this awkwardly position Maguire as the lead, without his character ever driving the story forward in any real way (he’s totally devoid of agency or discernible goals), but it’s also boring and totally dull, especially since most of this “institutionalized time” stuff takes place in the snowy winter, far from the sweltering setting of the rest of the movie. This highly unoriginal framing device (ironic, considering it’s being used to tackle what many consider one of the finest pieces of American writing) might be the worst bit of gilding an already overly shellacked lily, causing an overlong, bloated monstrosity to be even more cumbersomely ornate.3. The Editing
For someone who seems to have such a firm grip on what they want to achieve, visually, Luhrmann seems totally unconfident when it comes to maintaining those visuals onscreen for more than a few seconds at a time. There are examples throughout “The Great Gatsby” of this, but an early (and notable) standout is when the camera is glacially tracking down a dinner table where all our characters are seated. The shot is from above and is meant to both establish the geography of where everyone is seated as well as reinstate the kind of over-the-top lavishness that the Buchanans are surrounded by everyday. We should have been given the chance to luxuriate in this moment, but instead, Luhrmann chooses to cut around to various conversations going on at the table, so quickly that you’re never able to latch onto any part of the conversation, but just long enough to disrupt the visual flow and make the whole scene feel wobbly and unbalanced. “The Great Gatsby” is full of moments like this, chockablock with things that Luhrmann just shouldn’t be doing in 3D, like excessive whip-pans (which give off a strobing effect), too many dissolves and constantly moving on to the next camera angle without a moment to take in all three dimensions. Had the movie come out at Christmas like it was originally supposed to, maybe these moments would have been cut down; as it stands, the movie feels like it’s been fiddled with and fussed over too much (something that could explain his lack of commitment to the images). Anyone baking cookies knows that too much time in the oven is never a good thing.
Every movie Baz Luhrmann does is a tonal high-wire act, where extreme silliness is often shoved right next door to dour melodrama (and vice versa). Sometimes this works beautifully, as in the case of “Moulin Rouge!,” where camp excess gingerly gave way to true heartbreak, amplifying both emotions tenfold. When Baz’s tonal ping-pong game doesn’t work, though, you get things like the first hour of “Australia” or, even more disastrously, “The Great Gatsby.” The story of “The Great Gatsby” is a tragedy, we all know this going in, but Luhrmann still throws screwball comedy (particularly the first meet-cute between Gatsby and Daisy) in at every conceivable turn, which seems teleported in from a different movie. Perhaps most tellingly, the story is set up as an exposé on the emptiness and frivolity of Jazz Age life, and then for the next two-and-a-half hours, Luhrmann luxuriates in it, blissfully unaware he’s failing at the very goal set out by our narrator, Nick. Luhrmann can’t quite seem to distinguish which kind of story he’s telling or even what he wants to say about the era exactly, but hopes if he puts enough razmatazz on screen, it won’t matter.
An offshoot of the horrible framing devices is that Maguire is narrating the movie and also writing about the movie. Since Luhrmann must indulge in both, we get film noir-y voice over, but we also see him write the story; at first its handwritten and then later it’s typed out, with massive chunks of text cluttering the frame. Either we should have heard the narration or we should have read the story, but not both, and not at the same time. But perhaps most curiously, this idea of tossing phrases up on screen is used very intermittently in a (lack-of) rhythm that’s jarring (and frankly, pretty amateur), taking viewers out of the experience, instead of drawing them further in. It’s another sign of a filmmaker seemingly not confident with a movie already stacked with stars, in 3D, and with an A-list soundtrack. By the end, it’s literally snowing letters, almost as if Baz has just given up and is hoping that something will resonate.
There are, of course, other totally ridiculous things in “The Great Gatsby,” from the soundtrack itself (the completely out-of-place will.i.am song in the middle of a jazz-era party is just one of many instances where things just don’t mesh) to the visuals, that are way over the top and add layer upon layer of distracting distance between the viewer and the emotional center of the movie (and what’s worse – the 3D looks awful). Then there are the thinly drawn characters (Carey Mulligan deserved better) and much more. Are we being too hard on the movie? What irked you? Weigh in below.