The Great Gatsb… eh…
Things I’ve learned from The Great Gatsby
Let me preface my preface by saying we don’t do a lot of movie reviews on Blogfreako. And also that this is my blog post so if you don’t like it, get your own.
Now let me preface my post by saying what a huge fan I am of Baz Luhrmann. (Also his wife and close collaborator Catherine Martin, who production designs all of his films. The visuals on this film are pretty much nailed, as usual, though so I’m not intentionally leaving her out of this, I just don’t think it applies so much to her.) The Red Curtain trilogy is practically impeccable for me. Whether it’s flawless or not, I don’t care, I love it so much I’m not interested in picking it apart. Moulin Rouge was a huge inspiration for me to get into this business- I was very literally outraged that the film had been made before I was old enough to be a part of it. In true Dramatic Teenager fashion, I felt like my life had passed me by.
I finally saw The Great Gatsby the other night and, like most people, I was decidedly less enthused. Borderline disappointed. No, just regular disappointed. But no one bats 1000 so I am just as much a fan as before. Most of the issues I had pretty much came down to the writing so there’s no reason I can’t learn some lessons to potentially incorporate into my own writing.
SPOLIER ALERT: If you don’t know the plot to The Great Gatsby a) how did you pass Junior year English and b) this will spoil things for you. Just go read the book super quick and come back- it’s one of the greatest American novels ever written and you’ll avoid uncomfortable conversations where people ask if you’ve read it and you find yourself uncharacteristically using the word “totes”.
SHOWING VS. TELLING – This, I think was the biggest issue for me. Film is a visual medium and having a character recount a situation should be kept to an absolute minimum, in my opinion. No free passes just because it has flashbacks. This was also my issue with the ending of a film I otherwise completely enjoyed, The Others. Ending on a big explanation is just not very compelling. A couple of moments specifically stick out for me:
Golftrix Jordan Baker realizes she has met Gatsby before When Nick sees Jordan later after being summoned to Gatsby at a party she very mysteriously but excitedly tells Nick that everything suddenly makes sense to her. We’re left very intrigued with what Gatsby has revealed, but she is whisked away in a car before she can give any other details. Later when Nick is having tea with Jordan, she tells him all about the history between Gatsby and Daisy- a history we’ve sort of already deduced by Daisy’s earlier reaction when someone mentions the name “Gatsby”. The problem is by this point we’ve been set up for a much more dramatic revelation. It’s just one of many examples where we’re led to expect something a bit more dramatic than what we’re given. I’m not suggesting the plot needs to turn into a soap opera, but this plot point was directed in a way that we expected some kind of major, unexpected revelation and either it wasn’t meant to be and shouldn’t have been made to seem so, or it was meant to be that way and the reveal should have been written/directed in a way that would have provided more of an “Aha!” moment for the audience.
Gatsby finally revealing his true past to NickBy this point, we have spent this entire film, nay TWO entire films (ok I’m exaggerating buhforealdo this movie is way too long), in suspense wondering what this guy’s deal is. Finally at some point he just decides it’s time to tell Nick everything, and he does so in one long heart-to-heart. Like, super long. There’s not a whole lot of reason why he suddenly decides to spill his guts (except maybe because he’s about to spill his guts into the pool? But he doesn’t know that yet), so we’re sort of left with this “ok… so now we know that” kind of feeling instead of something more like “omg, Jay you magnificent bastard what pain you have been hiding IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW”. A feeling like that might have made his death just a few minutes later a gigantic punch in the audience gut.
PACING- There was so much opportunity to pace this story in a way that I think would have made for a more compelling story. My main example here would be the drama that unfolds from Myrtle’s accident to Gatsby’s murder. I mean, Tom manipulates everyone with the worst consequences imaginable and winds up with everything! Instead, that entire plot line feels like an afterthought. If I wasn’t so spoiled by such effective suspense created in Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, maybe I wouldn’t be so bummed about this one. This plot line could have been used as a device played against Gatsby’s character development and it might have pushed things along much more quickly, again making his death so much more tragic. Just think about the death scene in Romeo + Juliet and tell me you don’t STILL hope that somehow, some way, her eyes will flutter open just a few seconds earlier.
CASTING – Oy, Tobey MacGuire. I’m sorry but when he’s right, he’s really right. When he’s not so much, well… he’s Nick Carraway. I loved him as Spiderman. I thought he was really good casting, and part of it was that sort of wide-eyed innocence he had as Peter Parker. He retains this wide-eyed innocence in this movie, which is just kind of weird. I just always envisioned Nick Carraway to be a little bit more grounded- I think one scene that could have made a lot of difference was the party in Myrtle and Tom’s apartment. He was just a little too overwhelmed I thought. Had he been in more control of the situation or at least an active participant maybe we would have had the sense that he was the reflective character that I was expecting. I just felt like he was a little too close to Ewen McGregor’s Christian without the charisma to actually take it all the way. I mean, Christian was naive but charming enough that you could see how/why people would fall for him. Nick is not supposed to be that, but it feels like he’s trying to be. Another issue I have is setting this in the sanitorium or whatever- I am not faulting Luhrmann for using that device (as many have), but if you’re going to have a damaged, alcoholic guy telling a story during his therapy sessions, we have a reasonable expectation that we are going to come to understand why this reasonably-adjusted guy wound up there. I don’t mean to keep coming back to Moulin Rouge! but just look at Christian while he’s telling that story. The dude is crushed and through the story we totally get why, magnifying our own reaction to Satine’s death.
Gosh, I keep thinking of more things. Alright, I know what you’re thinking “damn, I could have read the book AND watched this movie by now and decided all this for myself,” so I will wrap it up. These are my opinions. You can disagree if you want but in the context of tucking these lessons away for my own future writing, I think they’re valuable regardless of how they came about. I’m not looking to tear down a so-so movie by one of my absolutely favorite filmmakers. If you haven’t seen the Red Curtain trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!), rip yourself away from Orange Is The New Black for a binge-watch.