The husband and wife team who made this film worked hard to get all of the historical details correct, but anything that is good about the film gets lost in the unrelenting use of overpowering "Hollywood" film techniques.
It looks like an overproduced Disney-Jim Henson-George Lucas-Wes Anderson computer-generated fairy tale. F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Jim Henson's "Labyrinth." I have nothing against "Labyrinth," Henson, Disney, George Lucas or Anderson. In fact, they are all genius filmmakers, and I've loved many of their films, but "Gatsby" is not a fairy tale story. It is a story meant to be about real people in an actual place and time, in this case, New York and its environs during the pre-Crash Roaring 20's.
I'm sure many will defend the film by saying that it is trying to capture and express the quality Roaring 20's with its lavish, decadent, no holes barred orgiastic parties, boozing, gangsters, money lending and trading. But this picture is all psychedelic party with no pathos.
In "Steel Magnolias" the character Shelby describes her wedding colors as "blush and bashful." Her mother clarifies that she means "pink" and it looks like somebody vomited Pepto Bismol all over the church. That's what happened here. The film makers don't know when to stop. They are so enamored of CGI, 3-D, and any other eye-popping technique at their disposal that they use every crayon in the box — over and over and over again. They ruined this the same way George Lucas ruined the nearly unwatchable "Star Wars" prequels: by stuffing and cramming the movie with technical production magic.
As a result, nearly everything else is lost amidst the mess: the characters, the zeitgeist, the time and place, and the story, not to mention any subtlety — from a novel which is essentially one long lyrical poem.
The movie is also overwrought from beginning to end with ridiculous over-stylized tropes, like choreographed scenes of footmen throwing open doors in unison and swooping in and out of scenes like a Broadway cast of chorus boys.
With one grand exception the acting is quite good. In fact, the depiction of Tom Buchanan is probably the best I've seen. He is the best portrayal of the boorish, bigoted, entitled, old money American blue blood I've seen. Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby is also a very good portrayal of the character. (Gatsby remains a chimera to the end of the book, so any reasonable portrayal is open to interpretation.)
Toby Maguire's portrayal of Nick Carraway, the story's narrator, is just awful, though. I've liked Tobey McGuire in everything I've seen him in, but whether it was his acting or the direction, his portrayal of Nick Carraway is ham-fisted, awkward, and silly — even embarrassing.
Rather than portraying a detached young, upper crust (the character of Nick is from a "good family," monied and well-off though nothing on the scale of Jay Gatsby or Tom and Daisy Buchanan's riches) war veteran who is just four years removed from the horrors of mechanized mass killing, Toby Maguire's Nick Carraway looks and sounds like an adolescent on junior high summer break in a world of adults. That's a shame because I suspect Maguire has the acting talent to actually get the part right.
Lots of folks criticize the film's use of rap and hip hop music. Even though I don't like hip hop personally, I understand its use here. Hip hop is the jazz of our day. After a hundred years, jazz has become too historic and canonized to capture and signify the original edgy, and sinful character of the counter-culture of that era. The idea, for me, worked — for a little while. Just like everything else in the film, though, it is overused and overwhelms. It becomes as distracting and annoying as someone pushing his way past your seat while you are trying to watch the film.
The basic story of Gatsby is there, even if not the romance, poetry and lyricism of the novel, but despite its best efforts, and sadly because of them, the story and certainly much of what makes "The Great Gatsby" great is nearly lost amidst too much, far too much, overproduction. Less is more.
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