It’s The Great Gatsby, Old Sport

If I had taken a shot every time Leonardo DiCaprio said “old sport” in this movie, I would be dead right now.

I read The Great Gatsby years ago (maybe ten?), and I honestly don’t remember a lot of the specific details beyond the plot. I’ll try to do my best remembering book details correctly, but just in case, please accept my apology upfront if I make any references or comments that aren’t entirely book-accurate. But, hey, let’s quit wasting time because we have TONS to talk about with this movie.

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the plot: “The Great Gatsby follows Fitzgerald-like, would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves, and deceits. As Nick bears witness, within and without of the world he inhabits, he pens a tale of impossible love, incorruptible dreams, and high-octane tragedy and holds a mirror to our own modern times and struggles.”

Hey, old sport! I’m so mysterious, old sport. Would you like to come over to my gigantic mansion, old sport? We could party all night, old sport. Oh, but don’t forget to bring your cousin, old sport. Because I’m in love with her, old sport. I don’t care if she’s married, old sport. How many times do you think I can say “old sport” in this movie, old sport? (By the way, you’ve pretty much just experienced this entire movie from reading this paragraph).

Book nerds, help me out—did Gatsby say “old sport” in the book? I don’t recall him saying it at all, let alone in every other sentence. Nevertheless, that one saying ruined what could’ve been great dialogue. It’s like Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce have never written a good screenplay before (even though they co-wrote Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge, all of which were fantastic). The overuse of “old sport” was amateur. Why? Because if Gatsby would’ve only used “old sport” a few times, like whenever he tried to cover up his dismay or anxiety, then “old sport” would’ve been useful in showing the audience that Gatsby has a tendency to use polite, chummy behavior to hide emotion (I believe that would also be a distinguishing trait of a multidimensional character).

But instead, “old sport” was used so much that it became a novelty and a distraction rather than a characteristic. I’m assuming the reason Gatsby said “old sport” every two seconds was because Luhrmann and Pearce wanted to make him seem old-timey to us modern folk. Gee! Wouldn’t it be swell if there were some way the filmmakers could immerse the audience in the time period of Fitzgerald’s story through…oh, I don’t know…visuals of some sort instead of relying entirely on dialogue? Oh, wait! That’s called costume and set design.

Speaking of visuals, I think we can all agree that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) narrating the story by actually writing onscreen was a terrible decision. The scribbling of the pen, the typing on the typewriter, the random words floating around covering up other imagery—it might have looked cool in the 3D viewing, but it drew too much attention away from the story, itself. You see, Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby, both in the book and in the movie. But rather than letting Carraway start in on Gatsby’s story at the beginning of the movie like any other narrating character in a movie (The Shawshank Redemption, anyone?), Luhrmann and Pearce decided to first show us Carraway years after Gatsby’s death, suffering from alcoholism in a sanitarium where he ends up writing Gatsby’s story as part of his therapy (Way to go, Baz. You just recreated Moulin Rouge in a different time period).

Adding this side story was a huge beef for book fans because it wasn’t in the book. Before I continue with my point, let’s step back for a moment to discuss something that bugs me (This does pertain to the topic, I promise). People, books aren’t movies. Books are written art, and movies are visual art. Books rely on subtlety in text, and movies rely on subtlety in imagery. A book-to-film adaptation is just that—an adaptation. It’s impossible to translate the written into the visual without creative rewrites, combinations, or nixing, so you need to chill out about this approach with Carraway’s narration. That being said, this approach does fail because Luhrmann and Pearce, themselves, forget the medium in which they’re working by including too much text onscreen. Even though the onscreen text was a tribute to Fitzgerald’s exact prose, it does a major disservice to this movie.

Remember what I was just saying about the differences between books and movies? Well, Luhrmann clearly forgot that when he tried to combine written art and visual art in a visual art medium. He is nothing if not an artistic film director, so you would think he would understand more than anyone the limitations words present when it comes to what he can do visually. Do you remember what our high school English teachers used to tell us about writing? Show vs. tell, kids. Good writing shows us the story. It doesn’t tell us. When Luhrmann chose to have Carraway write the story onscreen instead of showing us what he was writing about, he chose to tell us rather than show us. Who cares how pretty Carraway’s script is or how quickly he types? I don’t want to watch him write about the mystery of Gatsby. I want to see what behaviors make Gatsby seem so mysterious to Carraway.

Truly, Luhrmann was having all kinds of problems visually with this film, which I find strange because visual is his thing. He used aerial pans, sepia filters, bloated wide shots, really obvious CGI, dramatic zooms, and a crapload of other techniques throughout the entire movie, not even once considering why they needed to be there. I was always taught with film that every camera angle should have a purpose, so when I see this ridiculous circus of editing, I wonder what the hell Luhrmann was trying to accomplish. It’s sad, really, because he’s so good. Like the can-can scene in Moulin Rouge. The camera went in circles around the dancers with wide shots to close-ups really fast and had this whole sort of spinning look to it (like the can-can). That’s genius directing/editing. But with The Great Gatsby, he just whipped out whatever he could find to make the movie look more interesting. There’s a reason no one thought Australia was good, and that’s because he tried to do this same bullshit. Thankfully, he had production designer Catherine Martin to distract us with lavish sets, props, and costumes. If this movie gets nominated for the Academy Awards at all (fat chance), I hope it’s for Catherine Martin’s production design.

Now that I’ve yelled about film nerd stuff, let’s talk about acting. Because that’s what you really care about, isn’t it? Since Titanic sky-rocketed him to fame, Leo’s played an interesting game in Hollywood. He’s picked roles as villains, criminals, and old men, all of which he performed well in order to avoid the “handsome dreamboat” typecast that many of his generational equals have disappeared into. But I’ve missed handsome Leo. I think that’s the real reason I was so excited to see The Great Gatsby. And while Leo looked handsome as hell in this movie, I couldn’t help but notice how constrained his acting was. Was it just the “old sport” lines weighing him down, or was it because he didn’t have the direction or screenplay to give Gatsby the depth that we’ve seen in his other characters? (Maybe he was right to avoid the typecast).

Carey Mulligan was the same way. She’s a phenomenal actress, but Daisy felt rather downplayed (especially considering how charming and ditzy she is in the book), as if the intent was for us to notice only how strikingly beautiful and sad she is. Honestly, even their chemistry was lacking. The only time I ever felt like I was watching Gatsby and Daisy (not Leo and Carey) was during the shirt-tossing scene where he’s throwing the shirts at her and reveling in her charm, and she’s jumping up and down and gasping about the beautiful colors and fabrics. What does that say about this movie?

The other actors ranged from fantastic (Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker) to forgettable (Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson). But, hey, at least the soundtrack was cool with its hip-hop covers of jazz tunes and blasé indie pop. Score one for Sean “Jay-Z” Carter.

Overall, The Great Gatsby was kind of like Ryan Lochte. It’s nice to look at, but there’s not really much depth beyond the looks. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story is all about loneliness, the vapid frivolity of the Jazz age, wealth and power, and star-crossed lovers, but all we saw in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation was an expensive tribute to Art Deco. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, who are seasoned, Oscar-nominated actors, couldn’t give Fitzgerald’s story the retelling it deserves. While serious kudos need to go to production designer Catherine Martin for her gorgeous sets, costumes, and props, her design was the only strong part of this film with everything else dragging the film into a state of “meh.” Amateur seems to be the recurrent theme here. The writing, the direction, and the editing all just contributed into the hot mess we’ll now call The Great Gatsby. And what’s sad is a few minor tweaks here and there would’ve made it so much better. At least we have the soundtrack, right?

The Great Gatsby: B-

3 thoughts on “It’s The Great Gatsby, Old Sport

  1. Had to read this review, since I actually went to go see this one…And I just read the book the day before going…so, yes, Gatsby does say “old sport” that many times. It’s a sign that Gatsby is affecting the speech of the upper class. Anytime in the book or movie he is losing it, nervous, angry, etc., he drops the “old sport” and the strange accent and sounds more like himself. And, while I thought the movie was too slow, I did admire how almost all the dialogue and narration was word for word from the book. All the “up-close” visuals on random people or scenes were almost all random things Carraway hones in on in the book. As an English teacher, I felt the movie was an awesome homage to the book, staying extremely true to style and author’s intentions. The reason I felt like it was a bad movie was because The Great Gatsby does not translate to film media well. So, while I didn’t necessarily enjoy the movie, I could definitely appreciate a book-to-film attempt that was well-made and true to the book.

  2. Yes, Gatsby calls everyone, not just Nick, “old sport” — even Tom Buchanan– in the book as well as the movie. Just as Tom demands to know where it came from, I would be very interested to know where Fitzgerald got it from and whether other people used the phrase in the ’20s. Tom’s puzzlement suggests that it was an affectation peculiar to Gatsby. The movie indicates that he picked it up from the yachtsman who became Jay Gatts’ entre into the world of the upper class. I wonder if it isn’t something that a member of the nouveau riche might say but the “old money” people would not.

  3. I saw the film last week and now have started reading the book (or possibly re-reading, I can’t remember) and yes, Gatsby does say old sport a lot.

    Scott Fitzegerald isn’t above a spot of “tell don’t show” either. The start of chapter 6 is a Carraway reporting stuff Gatsby told him about his mysterious past up to Dan Cody’s death: “He told me all this very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumors about his antecedents, which weren’t even faintly true.” Although it would still be telling, Scott F could have shown Gatsby talking about this to Carraway in a scene, but instead it is an infodump deployed “to clear this set of misconceptions away”.

    I enjoyed the film better than I was expecting to, given the reviews I saw, but partly that’s the result of lowered expectations. Much of it seems overly cartoony – the madcap driving into town – or part of a surreal, druggy dreamscape – the grey valley of ashes. So it too often doesn’t feel grounded in reality, especially with some of the overwrought cgi, which can look good in an illustrative sense but throw you out of the story. But much of what looks like filmic licence, such as Carraway literally looking down at himself looking up at himself, has a source in the book: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

    People have criticised Carey Mulligan for being too wishy-washy to be Daisy, apparently the inspirer of a maginficent, doomed love in some Titan of a man. But even in the book, so far as I can see, Daisy is far from an impressively witty, rounded brainbox and comes over pretty vapid and shallow, driven more by material comfort than anything else; and Gatsby, far from being a magnificent romantic being, is mostly a self-deluding twit obsessed with what amounts to a massive adolescent crush.

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