Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” has been in theatres long enough now that we have a reliable sample of reaction by both critics and ordinary fans.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, out of 224 professional critics only about half reviewed it lukewarm to enthusiastically. The rest gave negative reviews, many unusually scathing. Critics gave an average rating of only 5.8 out of 10. Even more telling, among the site’s “top critics”, only 30 percent reviewed it favourably. One can say with some accuracy that, on balance, despite all its beauty the movie left the critics in an unsatisfied, ugly mood.
On the other hand, almost three-quarters of 88,000 fans reviewed it positively. That’s a more than statistically significant sample, much more. Fans rate it 7.6 out of 10. Fans like it even if they are not over the top about it. Many will return for at least one additional viewing, one of the criteria necessary for it to enjoy the staying power of great movies.
Whenever we notice the phenomena of a great divergence between audience and critics, our working assumption should be that the movie entertains but there is a different perception about its teaching or ability to motivate. Indeed, this movie unquestionably succeeds at creating spectacle and a screen world in which the audience can become immersed. From Baz Lurhmann, it is a given that we might expect nothing less.
Gatsby is adapted from a much studied tragic novel. The novel actually had the same reception as the movie: critics did not like it at first. Still, after about 20 years, audience reaction elevated it to the high status it enjoys today.
Whenever a story is well known, people will have a sense of ownership in it. Disappointment on their perception of how well either the outside story or its inner core is translated becomes a common risk. Yet, a book is a book and a movie is a movie. Each must be assessed on the terms of its own medium. Nevertheless, this movie does follow the outside story very closely. There is widespread critical disagreement, however, on how well it captures the inner story.
Ultimately, it is a tragic story without a satisfactory attempt to take away the sting. This will explain why many of those unfamiliar with the story will have left feeling disappointed or empty. That is, probably, a good many of the one-quarter fans who did not like the movie. They did not come away with a sense of how the creator would motivate them to improve their own lives. Neither the book nor the movie spoon feeds us.
Before one can appreciate how any story would want to motivate us, we must analyze the underlying teaching. On the surface here, the hero dies, an innocent fool is driven to murder and suicide, and the bad guy gets the girl. What in the name of all that is good is going on? Is there no justice in the world?
Just as bad, the girl who survives is the kind whose passions follow wealth over character, a fortune hunter. The story’s tragic ending turns on the fact that she cannot find any difference to choose between an idle, white supremacist who inherited his money and a self-made man who created his own fortune, albeit through sharp practise. And she kills the better woman, unintentionally and at random though she was one of her husband’s mistresses, who is at least honest in that she makes little pretence of being more than one who lives in the moment. Unrestrained fortune hunting casually destroys what is most human in us, individually and as a community.
It is the story’s instruction that the critics do not like. Not that there is too much, but that there is too little. Especially little accent on, or hints about, modes of redemption. Miles long and an inch thick is how one critic put it. Though one suspects the creator would have answered, “…but that’s the point, old sport.” The outer message is a warning about the perils of decadence. This can be taken as a criticism of our time or as a more fundamental criticism of the dysfunctions of the “American dream.” Nor does the story point us to some oasis of sanity to which we ordinary people might aspire: it leaves us to do this work mostly on our own.
The latter even more so since the Gatsby story was inspired by an episode in the Satyricon, a Roman work of fiction in the first century AD. American critics have never liked movies seemingly critical of American or capitalist mythology. In reaching ahead, to use the movie’s concluding explanation and imagery, are we actually reaching back…not to recreate something good but some of the worst days from the Roman Empire? Are we doomed by fate?
A tragic sensibility often is unwelcome where there is a dominent sensibility built on a false and unrealistic mythology of hope, on happy endings. However the many critics might try to dress up their varying proclamations of distaste for Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” what may be going on here, underneath, is that they are shooting the messenger.
The Great Gatsby is a fine movie, worth the price of admission…even with what is, in this case at least, an unrewarded 3D surcharge. Unless, that is, Lurhmann had us wear these spectacles ironically so that we could be our own Dr. Eckleburg observing the loss of spiritual values and devaluing of honor all around us. If you hope for more than mere entertainment, you will still find it worth the price. And the car scenes definitely are better than the book.