Is “The Great Gatsby” Great Enough for You?
After seeing “The Great Gatsby,” I left the theater with mixed emotions. I took some time to sort out my thoughts, but I still have conflicting opinions, and here’s why:
The book and the movie share the same plot, but there are elements that I feel are key to the novel that are omitted in the film. I think it’s best to examine the movie as its own entity, but that’s just plain impossible if you’ve read the book. Tobey Maguire stars as Nick Carraway, our narrator and guide through the film, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby steals the show. Relatively unknown, but likely to become very popular, actors populate the rest of the cast.
We begin with Nick, a bondsman turned writer, visiting an analyst. His analyst thinks it will be helpful to sort through his demons from the past if he writes about them– even if he decides to burn it after writing it. The film switches back from the story to Nick and the analyst from time to time. The real story is of the summer of 1922, when Nick comes from the Midwest to New York City to make a living selling bonds. He visits his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton) whom Nick knows from Yale. He also meets Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a professional golfer and his love interest for the summer. As he struggles at his new occupation, he cannot help but observe the extravagant parties thrown by his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. He is finally invited to a party in Gatsby’s gigantic house and finds his host fascinating and enigmatic. They spend some time together becoming casual friends, but it is later in the film that we find out that Gatsby has told Jordan that he is, and has been for years, madly in love with her friend Daisy. He has also implored Jordan to ask Nick to arrange for Daisy to come to tea at Nick’s rental cottage when he is there. Nick is worried that Daisy may not want to see Gatsby, but he arranges the meeting anyway. Though it is incredibly awkward at first, this meeting is the beginning of an affair between Gatsby and Daisy. Nick, and everyone else including Daisy, already know that Daisy’s husband Tom has a married girlfriend. In fact, Nick has met the mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), while driving with Tom, and he has attended a wild and explicit [?] party with her, her sister, and a few of her friends. The harshest conflict arises when Tom and Myrtle’s husband George both figure out that their wives are having affairs. On the hottest day of the year, absolutely everything escalates and three characters lose their lives.
What I disliked most about the movie was the added touches that made it much more vulgar than the novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes with a descriptive grace that gets the message across without pummeling you over the head with it. For example, in the book Nick walks into Tom’s love nest with Myrtle and they are privately engaged. It is clear to the reader what is happening. However, in the movie we are treated to unwanted sound effects. There is also a speak-easy scene where scantily clad women are dancing on a stage to entertain the male clientele. All of the dancers are black women. Especially after we have heard Tom’s thoughts on “The Rise of Colored Empires” and his perception of the obvious superiority of the “white race,” this scene felt extremely uncomfortable and degrading. It was also completely gratuitous, as it was not at all mentioned in the book.
Unless you’re Humphrey Bogart, voice-overs are hard to make likable, and, unfortunately, I did not like Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick. Nick is trapped in the middle of all this, but sticks to his own moral code in the book. In the movie, Nick allows himself to be sucked further in to deviant behaviors that he later regrets. I did not have the fondness I feel for Nick Carraway in the book for Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway in the film. (There is one more issue discussed at the end of this review but it contains spoilers.)
There is lots to love about the movie, too. It is visually dazzling from start to finish, and though I had doubts about the soundtrack going into it, I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. However, what I like most were the performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. Though, DiCaprio is a little old for the character, the rawness of his performance makes it easy to forget his age. He is everything I imagined for Jay Gatsby. His barely concealed vulnerability is irresistible. Speaking of irresistible, Carey Mulligan lights up every scene as Daisy. She is charming and effervescent, even though the character can be absolutely despicable, and many of Daisy’s most charming lines from the novel are not used in this film version. The supporting cast is excellent as well. Honestly, I could watch the film muted, and just enjoy the costumes.
This movie is rated PG-13, and it means it. I would be reluctant to let a 13 year old watch this film. There are fist fights, violence against women, constant themes of infidelity, and though the openly racist character is shown to be an awful person, the filmmakers show black women as entertainment and sex objects for white men.
I did enjoy the movie, but I love the book. To be fair, I’m not sure any movie version could do the book justice. The movie successfully evokes feeling from the audience, and portrays decadence and desolation in a way that I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would be proud of.
Spolier Alert! My biggest issue with the movie was with the way George Wilson finds out who owned the car that killed his wife Myrtle. In the movie, Tom tells him it was Jay Gatsby because he is upset over Myrtle’s death and because he believes it to be true. In the book, there is conversation between Daisy and Tom after the accident, and a definite opportunity for Daisy to admit that she had been driving the car before Tom and George discuss it. That could help explain the couple’s abrupt departure from their home. Tom is a violent, racist, unfaithful monster in the book. Wanting Myrtle’s killer to be outed and punished almost feels too human for Tom.