I think your mileage on Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is going to be directly correlated to your relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book and your relationship with Baz Luhrmann. If you hold The Great Gatsby to be one of the greatest stories in American literature, you are probably going to be disappointed with this film and what it chooses to focus on (and what it obscures or leaves out). Luhrmann has a distinct way of directing films – he thinks that more is more, rather than less – and if you weren’t a fan of the style or use of contemporary music in Moulin Rouge then The Great Gatsby is probably not going to be your thing either.
I, however, do not fall into either of these camps. Though it has been a while since I have seen Moulin Rouge, I remember liking it quite a bit despite all its over-the-top-ness and its full frontal assault on your senses. Luhrmann has his particular vision and while I don’t think I’d like to watch his type of movie all the time, it is enjoyable every once in a while. Luhrmann may realize this as he is not a particularly prolific director; his last feature film was 2008’s Australia. I also do not consider The Great Gatsby to be a sacred cow in the world of literature. While I read in in high school, I realized as I went onto the movie that I had little to no recall of the actual story. All I could remember was that there was a guy named Gatsby (obviously), a woman named Daisy that was pretty shallow and unlikable and that there was a billboard with a pair of eyeglasses that had a lot of symbolism (my junior year English teacher was really big on symbolism – all I remember about Ethan Frome is that the broken pickle dish was a metaphor for the emptiness of the Frome marriage (or something)). I had contemplated re-reading the book during the run up to the release of the film, but decided against it. I thought that wasn’t necessarily fair to the movie; reading the book too closely to seeing the movie was bound to foster unfavorable comparisons and might result in fatigue of the story. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, watched the Swedish film and the American version all within a few weeks of each other and by the time I saw the U.S. adaptation I was a little Lisbeth’ed out. I wanted to avoid that with The Great Gatsby.
Given these circumstances, I actually enjoyed The Great Gatsby more than I expected. The first half of the movie is far more exciting; once the story slows down a bit, its weaknesses become more apparent. Luhrmann’s visual style melds particularly well with the opulence of the party scenes and I thought the hip-hop heavy soundtrack worked well. I wouldn’t say that The Great Gatsby was a great film or had a profound impact on me, but I left the theater entertained. For a summer movie, that is sometimes enough. But those that hold The Great Gatsby near and dear their hearts as a literary classic are bound to find Luhrmann’s more cursory adaptation wanting and unfulfilling.
This version of The Great Gatsby is focused solely on Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy; it is far more interested in that tragic love story than in commenting on class structure or some of the socioeconomic issues on which the book spent more time. Luhrmann strips away most of the other stories and focuses on the more soapy aspects of the novel. Even with this primary focus, there isn’t a lot of contemplation or deep analysis. Luhrmann is using Fitzgerald’s text, but it is a more literal adaption that some may find lacking the spirit of the book. Luhrmann is not one for subtlety or symbolism.
Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Gatsby and the film is far more interesting whenever he is on screen. He captures both Gatsby’s smooth charm and vulnerability and he has what may be the best entrances of a character in cinematic history (it’s completely over the top, but it is still perfect). DiCaprio is definitely the best thing in the movie and anchors the film from Luhrmann’s more extravagant tendencies. It is not a surprise that even those reviewers that don’t like the film have singled out DiCaprio’s performance as a bright spot. Joel Edgerton also does a nice job as the brutish Tom Buchanan and though she has limited screen time, Elizabeth Debicki is mostly effective as Jordan Baker.
Tobey McGuire didn’t quite work for me as Nick Carraway; there was something just a little too earnest in his portrayal that rubbed me the wrong way. He was too Peter Parker for my liking and while Carraway is supposed to be a bit naïve, this version of Carraway just read as a little dopey. This film has also created a different future from Nick that seems a bit unearned based on what we see in the film.
I like Carey Mulligan as an actress, but I thought the biggest flaw of the film was her Daisy Buchanan. Even with my limited memories of the book, that character stood as a thoughtless and careless and just kind of terrible. This version of Daisy just seems more indecisive than selfish; she is somewhat likeable through most of the film, which fails to adequately sell the plot developments of the last act. Mulligan also struck me as too young for the role, though that may be my own personal preconceptions. This Daisy comes across as more of a victim rather than a shallow woman who only thinks of herself. No one asked me, but I think Michelle Williams would have been absolutely spectacular in this role.
Visually, The Great Gatsby is a beautiful movie. The extravagant parties hosted by Gatsby are a dizzying display in the best possible way. Halfway through the first party scene I was lamenting that I didn’t have a cocktail in my hand; the scenes were huge, luscious and overwhelming. Luhrmann doesn’t do anything small and so these scenes were a perfect marriage of story and director; he could throw everything that he has at the screen and it would work. Even the smaller and more intimate scenes are beautifully shot, though there are moments when some additional restraint by Luhrmann may have been beneficial. Luhrmann slowing things down is still quicker than most. I am a fan of the art deco aesthetic, so I appreciated all the detail to wardrobe and architecture. I didn’t spring for this film in 3-D, so I cannot comment on its usage or need. I’m guessing that it was superfluous.
Though this was a limited and superficial retelling of Fitzgerald’s classic and had some weaknesses in casting, I still found the film entertaining. Perhaps it was my lowered expectations and my general indifference to the source material, but I was mostly engaged throughout the film’s 2 hour and 20 minute run time. Because I didn’t remember much of the story, it was fresh enough to me that I was interested in what was going to happen next. The ending came back to me, but how we got there was still a journey that I was interested in taking. Most of the credit for that belongs to DiCaprio and his excellent work as Gatsby. His presence helps the viewer forget some of the weaknesses of the film. The breakneck pace of the first half also doesn’t give you much time to swell on some of the shortcomings; everything is happening so quickly and things are so shiny that you can’t really process what you are viewing. It is the second half when the flaws become more apparent and where the shallowness of the story and characterization prove to be most problematic. Nick’s jaded attitude and disgust with everyone doesn’t have the believability or emotional punch that it should have as a result and Daisy’s indifference should have seemed more cruel and self-absorbed than it did.
The Great Gatsby is a lot like the worldview of the characters in the book – it is entertaining, but ultimately disposable. There isn’t a lot of substance to Baz Luhrmann’s adaption, but it has style in spades. It was better than I expected given this unlikely pairing of source material and director; if you are willing to think of it as just a trifling summer movie rather an attempt to film an American classic, you’ll be far better off.
The Great Gatsby opened nationwide on Friday.