The Great Gatsby Review
by Daniel Rester
Confession time, old sport: I have yet to read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby (1925). I know, I know. But by being immersed in American culture for the entirety of my life, I still know a good deal about the novel and Fitzgerald’s influence. I have also never seen any of the three previous feature film adaptations (yes, there were actually three in all), nor a lot of director Baz Luhrmann’s work. So going in to see Luhrmann’s new adaptation of Gatsby, I obviously had an abnormal angle of what to expect. Still, I know enough of both Fitzgerald and Luhrmann so as to not be completely blind.
Gatsby follows Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young man from the Midwest who moves to New York and becomes a bond salesman in the summer of 1922. Across the bay from his house lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), and her old-money husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). But next door to Carraway lives Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a rich, mysterious man who throws extravagant parties. Carraway soon finds out that Gatsby is in love with Buchanan and wants her to leave Tom. At the same time, Tom is sleeping with a trashy woman named Myrtle (Isla Fisher) – unbeknownst to her car mechanic husband, George (Jason Clarke). Carraway becomes caught up with all of this and also begins to learn the secrets about Gatsby’s life.
The director frames this version of Gatsby by actually having Carraway doing his writings in a rehabilitation center of some sorts – in there for alcoholism. From here, Carraway’s narration comes through to the story. Some of the narration is accompanied by words flying off of the screen in popping ways. This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t totally successful. The same can be said of the majority of the movie.
While Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay actually hits many of the big events that occur in the novel, Luhrmann wastes the opportunity of doing a fully respectful adaptation in favor of “modernizing” the story. With his usual eye for elaborate visuals, Luhrmann fills the screen with color, glitter, and artificial environments. Supporting Luhrmann’s style are some swooping cinematography, glitzy costumes and production design, and occasionally chaotic editing and sound editing. All of this provides for a bright presentation, but it is rendered as a sound-and-fury package rather than as something great.
Accompanying the visual pop is a soundtrack that includes hip-hop songs from Jay-Z (who was an executive producer) and other artists. Like with last year’s Django Unchained, some of the anachronistic music actually fits with the film’s feel. But at the same time such a choice seems strange when the film takes place in the jazz age and could have easily had a great jazz soundtrack.
With such elements dominating the movie for a long while, I was ready to give Gatsby a lower score than I’m going to give it. Around forty-five minutes before the film ended, I finally started to become engaged with the story and began to feel something. At that point there is a scene in the film that takes place in a small, hot apartment.
In the smaller setting and with the actors as the centerpiece, this scene actually captures the tension and grace that much of the rest of the film seems to be missing. It contains one terrific dialogue exchange between Edgerton and DiCaprio, and makes one wish that Luhrmann provided more scenes similar to it. What follows the scene are a few more great moments, but nothing as excellent. Unfortunately, by the time the film finally captured my interest, it had gone on for too long and lost some air (it runs over two hours). Perhaps if Luhrmann had focused more on such things as emotional weight, irony, satirical stabs at the party scene (instead of just love for the color of such moments), and character development – all things that this “Great American Novel” must surely have – more than drowning the screen with style and repeated symbolism, the film could have impressed me sooner. Too bad.
The cast cannot be blamed here, though. In fact, they are mainly what I will mildly recommend the film for. DiCaprio is magnificent as Gatsby. He is suave-looking in the part, but also captures the adolescent and torn heart of Gatsby and the sadness and mystery in his eyes. Edgerton is second-best as Tom, a brutish and intelligent “bad guy.” Maguire nicely plays his part as Carraway, occasionally providing puppy-dog gazes that connect emotionally. He and DiCaprio (who are real-life friends) also have the best chemistry of any of the actors. Mulligan is hit-and-miss as Daisy. The actress does a good job at delivering some likable aspects to the ultimately dislikable character, but some of her dialogue delivery feels like flat line-reading. And the rest of the cast is also strong, but mostly just there to fit the parts.
Part of me hated this version of Gatsby, while another part of me was drawn to it. It is mostly a mixed bag — alternately respectful and ridiculous. I’m not sure Luhrmann was the right guy to bring this novel to the screen. Sure, he has filmmaking skills for presentation, but his trademarks of glamor are no match for the heart in a story – something that this Gatsby is mostly missing. But in the end I still sort-of liked the film, with DiCaprio’s stunning performance and the apartment scene showing traces of what could have been.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B-).