Pop-Ed: The Not-So Great Gatsby

bill bodkin was not a fan …

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If you read our review of The Great Gatsby, which was published on Sunday May 12, you would have read our film editor Daniel Cohen heaping praise upon on Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The review, as with all of Dan’s pieces, is a fantastic and detailed account of why he loved the film and it is definitely worth your time to read (as is all his reviews, but I’m biased).

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However, I’d like to offer you an alternative review of the film — because quite frankly, to me, this movie was an absolute train wreck.

Like our film editor, The Great Gatsby is my all-time favorite novel. And like him, I too, had a mixture of trepidation and excitement coursing through my veins as I entered my local cineplex to view the mad scientist of cinema’s take on this beloved American novel. Yet, unlike Dan, I left the movies with my fears and worries about the film completely realized and here’s why…

I’ve Seen This Movie Before and it Was Called Moulin Rouge, Part 1 — Okay, obviously they aren’t the same movie, but the similarities were waaaaay too much. Let’s look at the structure of the story — a young, wide-eyed and naive writer (who’s our narrator) is swept up into a world of decadence only to be let down by the glamorous people around him; he falls into a world of alcoholism and depression with writing the entire story down as his only therapy. Call it coincidence, call it a tried-and-true cinematic character but the similarities were just blatant to me. The tone, the cinematic trickery, the style, the acting (in some respects) — just too similar to Moulin Rouge for me.

Old Sport — If you played a drinking game where you had to pound a shot every time Gatsby says the phrase “old sport” you’d need a liver transplant by the end of the film. Yes, it was that ever-present and hence, that annoying.

I’ve Seen This Movie Before and It Was Called Moulin Rouge, Part 2 — The parties at Gatsby’s house seemed to have been B-roll from Moulin Rouge’s fantastical dance numbers. Again, from the way it was shot, to the color choices, to incorporation of modern music, it was all way to familiar, but not in an Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg wink-and-nod/knowingly breaking the 4th wall kinda way but more like a Bon Jovi ‘lemme see how many times I can re-write Livin’ on a Prayer’ kinda way. Yawn.

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Spectacular Spectacular and Not in a Good Way — It seems that Baz Luhrmann was more concerned with creating a spectacle than a motion picture. It was more about the glitz and glamour, the pretty lights and the pretty girls, than actual substance. Gatsby is a gorgeous film and believe it or not, looked breathtaking in 3D. However, that seemed to be Luhrmann’s biggest concern and with the amount of money being spent on the film and the fact his last epic, Australia did so poorly, he had to make sure that the spectacle of Gatsby would get people in seats. Mission accomplished.

But, when it came to the story he seemed to rely on his old visual tricks and literary gimmicks and the natural talent of his male lead rather than develop a stronger story or encourage stronger performances, particularly from Tobey Maguire (more on him later). This film felt more like a retread of things we’ve seen before from Luhrmann than original artistry and that’s infuriating. The appeal of Luhrmann has always been his ability to create new takes on classic storytelling; takes that seem so absurd and so unbelievable on paper, but when they unfold before you, it makes perfect and magical sense. That did not happen here.

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The Music Could’ve Been Brilliant — One of the big ‘controversies’ of Gatsby was Jay-Z’s involvement with the music of the film. I’ve never been a superfan of Jay-Z, but I’ve always respected him as a creative and I figured HOV himself would come up with a really creative soundtrack. And in some respects he did. Jack White’s cover of U2’s “Love is Blindness” was chilling, having his wife Beyonce and Andre 3000 cover Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” was a haunting and beautiful reinterpretation and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra and Emeli Sandé’s reimagining of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” was brilliant.

Then … there was the actual modern music in the film. “H to Izzo?” Seriously? I audibly said “Are you fucking kidding me?” in the theatre when this soon as this song came blaring into ear. (That did not go over well in the theatre.) First off, the song is such an overplayed and overrated piece of crap. Second, of all the modern songs out there, this is the one you pick? My God, I just wanted to rip my face off. Then there’s the random inclusion of Kanye and Jay’s “Church in the Wild.” Yes, it’s a cool song, but it really just felt out of place — included almost for shock value.

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Tobey Maguire — Note to Hollywood — he’s almost 40, please stop casting him as the wide-eyed and naive clean cut man-about-town. It’s getting to the point of absurdity and it’s one of the reasons the film suffers. He’s just so out of place. If you look at the casting of this film you couldn’t have picked better actors for their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio is marvelous and was born to play Gatsby. Carey Mulligan, who I wish was given a little bit more to do, was luminous and again, born to be Daisy Buchanan. And then there’s Joel Edgerton who just punched his ticket to Hollywood stardom with his portrayal of Tom Buchanan.

Then there’s Tobey Maguire. He delivers each line like he can’t control the volume of his voice. It also seems like he forgot how to deliver lines of dialogue. Every word is either awkwardly whispered or awkwardly yelled. He derails so many dramatic scenes, he kills so many comedic moments, it’s just a shame. Maybe if we had better direction, it would’ve helped. It also looked like his eyes would pop out of his head at any moment during the film. That would’ve been a killer moment for 3D audiences.

But in all fairness, what were the casting directors thinking here? You’ve got a slew of young actors at your disposal, any one of them could’ve handily worked here. From Nick Hoult to Aaron Johnson to Josh Hutcherson, there’s a plethora of talented young actors out there who could’ve become Nick Carraway. Maybe the three names I chose aren’t the best for the part; but they still would’ve been better than the former Peter Parker, who again, is just too old to play the role.

In Closing — Did I hate The Great Gatsby? No. I just had high hopes for it. I’m a fan of the book, of Baz Luhrmann, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan and of course, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio really carried the film and proved once again that he is one of the, if not the, very best actors in Hollywood today. Like I stated before, he was born to play this part and he owned every inch of it. As a visual spectacle, Gatsby delivered in spades. The 3D visuals were awe-inspiring and worth every penny of admission, something I can rarely admit for a 3D film. When the soundtrack was at it’s best, it was amazing and the actual score was classic Hollywood, which I’m a mark for.

However, the weaknesses of the film — the overfamiliarity of the director’s storytelling from shot selection to color palette to musical choices made the film seem like it cared more about its style than its substance, which is the exact opposite message of the story of Jay Gatsby.

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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