The Great Gatsby
Release Date: May 10, 2013
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann (screenplay) & Craig Pearce (screenplay); F. Scott Fitzgerald (based on the novel by)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
In a strange way, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel mirrors the story of Jay Gatsby himself – it has a clear dream, which it comes close to achieving, but ultimately it is too shallow and too focused on the wrong details to achieve.
Set in the early 1920s, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an eccentric millionaire who throws the most lavish and talked about parties in Long Island. However, Gatsby is oddly reclusive – he’s never actually seen mingling with guests and these parties and all of the socialites who attend know very little about their host. Of course, this doesn’t bother any of them. They are just there to have a good time.
The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s new neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who moves to New York from the Midwest. The normally solitary Gatsby quickly tries to befriend Carraway, though it becomes clear Gatsby has ulterior motives. It turns out that all of Gatsby’s actions have something to do with Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
The film wisely leans heavily on Fitzgerald’s words by having Maguire narrate the story as often as possible. Since so much of the charm and importance of the novel comes from those words. It’s a rather simple and straightforward story, but in the author’s prose you can find a variety of themes and ideas bubbling just below the surface. Fitzgerald’s carefully-crafted story examines the American dream, excess and obsession in a way that is at times heartbreaking, at times funny and at times ironic. It’s difficult to adapt The Great Gatsby into film without losing a lot of the story’s charm and importance. So using as many of Fitzgerald’s words as possible is a rather savvy approach. Though it is still imperfect and ultimately some things are lost in the translation.
Baz Luhrmann’s distinct visual and musical style is rather hit-or-miss in this film. Fans of his work – most notably Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet – know that he is a fan of using contemporary, anachronistic music in his works. He is also a fan of giving his films a visually-distinct high contrast, highly-stylized look.
At times this approach is quite beautiful and effective. At other times, you find yourself watching the perfectly-choreographed team of servants open the doors to Gatsby’s house and wondering how long it took them to get that shot just right instead of focusing on the larger context of what’s happening. By calling attention to inconsequential little details that look pretty, Luhrmann puts the audience into a “forest for the trees” situation where you miss the important subtext because the irrelevant minor details call too much attention to themselves.
Similarly, I found the music to be incredibly distracting. The Great Gatsby has a fantastic soundtrack, one that I would be happily rock out to in my car or on my iPod. But the tracks, which feature artist like Jay-Z (who produced it), Beyoncé, will.i.am, Jack White, Florence + The Machine and Lana Del Rey, blends with the on-screen story like oil and water. Music has an amazing sensory ability to draw you into a specific time and place, but every single song immediately drew me out of the 1920s and back to the present. It’s overly distracting and completely ineffective.
Still, Luhrmann’s approach worked really well in creating the large parties Jay Gatsby became famous for and the over-the-top lifestyle the elite New Yorkers were living at the time. If nothing else, Luhramm is great at presenting grandeur. And, wisely, he settles things down to a quieter and more straightforward tone during the emotional and more reflective scenes. Though at times he does indulge himself with unnecessary slow-motioning or overly-elaborate background choreography.
The performances in the film are solid all around. Jay Gatsby, a charming and handsome millionaire who at times seems overly boyish and awkward, seems like a role Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play. Carey Mulligan absolutely nails the part of Daisy Buchanan, an incredibly coquettish and shallow socialite. Joel Edgerton shines as her intimidating, former-sports-star husband Tom. And Jason Clarke is fantastic as George Wilson, a small, but incredibly important role in the film.
The Great Gatsby is an uneven and imperfect film. At times it evokes the Fitzgerald novel quite effectively, but too often it gets lost in its own desire to be a visual and auditory spectacle. Like Romeo + Juliet before it, I applaud Luhrmann’s attempt to make a classic story exciting and engaging for today’s youth. And, while the film falls flat at times, if it gets young people interested enough to go back and read the original novel, ultimately that’s a good thing.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.