There has been a ton of press, speculation, and anticipation leading up to the release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That kind of attention is only befitting a story about excess, secrecy, and speculation. When the film hit the screen, however, this reviewer found that the experience was mostly a flashy mess that overshadowed the powerful sadness of Fitzgerald’s novel.
For those who haven’t read the book, The Great Gatsby is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who lives in a tiny house among the many mansions on Long Island. His next door neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) owns the castle-like estate next door and keeps it filled with masses of people and luxurious parties. Across the bay, Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives, unhappily married, with her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). It’s a pretty open secret that Tom is having an affair. He keeps an apartment for his mistress, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), whose husband runs an auto shop halfway between Long Island and New York City. Eventually Nick and Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) arrange for Daisy to meet Gatsby. It turns out that Daisy and Gatsby—then James Gatz–were in love years ago, but Gatsby was penniless. His whole posh identity and the rumors that surround it are a show put on to gain Daisy’s attention as he pines for her and watches the green light at the end of her dock across the bay. When they strike up an affair of their own, things very quickly get very messy. It’s all more complicated than this. Don’t cheat on your English exam. Read the book.
I can understand how The Great Gatsby could be a difficult novel to adapt. There are scenes of excess and speed meant to depict the Jazz Age in full swing. These parts are sometimes paired with scenes in which time is glossed over, creating a sort of dizziness or ambiguity. Although it is clear that he tried to recreate the story faithfully, in Luhrmann’s adaptation, the excess of the Jazz Ages comes on far too strongly for roughly the first half of the movie. Paired with Jay-Z’s soundtrack, the flashy parties, performances, and over the top scenes of drunkenness look like a music video. The aesthetic of the film was just off-kilter. The early parts which set up the fall of the latter half of the narrative don’t work. For example, the scene with the owl-eyed man in the library, which in the text gives away the secret that Gatsby, like his books, is all show and no substance (thank you Mr. Clough), is shallow and tossed aside. So much of Luhrman’s film focuses on the fabulous stuff of Gatsby’s life, but not on the significance behind them in the story. It is so in your face that the voice of the narrative gets drowned out.
Although the somewhat surreal approach to the story often didn’t work as well as it could have, the second half of the film produces some great moments. For example, Gatsby’s anxiety before meeting Daisy again was a bright spot that marked the transition to an adaptation that dealt more seriously with the novel. Also, the scene in which Myrtle gets hit by Daisy and Gatsby’s car is fairly overdone, but actually sort of captures the heightened detail of the scene in the book.
As for performances, Leo DiCaprio never really disappears into the role. Like Gatsby, you can always tell that he is playing a part. Unfortunately, this does not deepen the portrayal of the character, it just keeps the audience aware that they are watching DiCaprio as Gatsby. Carey Mulligan seems born to play Daisy and I don’t think before her performance I fully realized how weak Daisy is. Still, sometimes Mulligan’s affected accent was distracting. In the midst of all the chaos, it was Joel Edgerton as the despicable Tom who really nailed his role.
Despite its many weaknesses, The Great Gatsby still brings through some beautiful moments and a stunning attention to aesthetic details. I rate it 2.5/5 stars.
The Great Gatsby was adapted and directed by Baz Luhrmann. It runs 142 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.