Generations of readers have either loved or loathed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s parable of the Jazz Age. At once both a character study and cultural critique, “The Great Gatsby” explores the seamy underbelly of the American utopian vision. When I first saw the initial previews for Baz Luhrmann’s big-budget adaptation, I was optimistic…and happily, my faith was rewarded. Luhrmann’s bombastic vision captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel while infusing it with contemporary energy.
Narrated by alcohol-rehab patient Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), “The Great Gatsby” tells the story of enigmatic multimillionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pursuit of former sweetheart Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan)…who, believing Gatsby long lost, married a wealthy boor. In a high-society world characterized by vapid hedonism and carnal sensuality, Nick finds himself irresistibly drawn to the romantic idealist Gatsby – even as Gatsby’s unfolding dream of “turning back the past” proves to be deeply destructive.
I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel multiple times, and for the most part Luhrmann stays faithful to the text. There are a number of additions and expansions throughout (and the fate of one major character is substantially altered), but these are fairly minor complaints.
Luhrmann is not a director known for subtlety, and “The Great Gatsby” is no exception here. Much of the time, this tendency towards excess serves the story quite well: garish party scenes are drenched with kinetic energy, and most of the cast members turn in dynamic performances (Gatsby’s first reunion with Daisy positively sizzles). Sweeping cinematography and a creative use of CGI effects create a gorgeous tableau; I found myself thinking the movie would be pretty solid without any sound at all. That said, the music selections Luhrmann employs (both the instrumental score and the original soundtrack) are phenomenal: who would’ve thought Jack White and will.i.am would work so well in the 1920s?
A better cast couldn’t have been selected for this film. Maguire (as seen in his turn as Peter Parker) makes a very convincing Everyman, especially against the backdrop of Gatsby’s glittering lifestyle. DiCaprio actually transcends the limitations of his character as written by Fitzgerald; Gatsby becomes a human, sympathetic figure with which the audience can connect, despite deep-rooted flaws. Mulligan, in a role similar to the one she played in “Drive,” exudes an innocent charm that meshes perfectly with Fitzgerald’s original character. It’s worth mentioning that Elizabeth Debicki is woefully miscast as Nick’s erstwhile love interest Jordan Baker, but she doesn’t have much screen time.
Sometimes Luhrmann’s tendency towards the baroque, however, becomes overwrought. The editing is sometimes a bit too chaotic: especially as the movie opens, the camera bounces from spectacle to spectacle without letting much sink in. (The narrative does finds its footing in the second half, though). More problematically, some elements left implicit in Fitzgerald’s relatively understated novel (the reasons behind Nick’s admiration of Gatsby, the precise nature of Gatsby’s past, the role played by the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg) are spoon-fed to the viewer through Nick’s ongoing narration. At times, this feels a shade patronizing: it’s almost as if neon text flashes onscreen to proclaim “HERE IS AN IMPORTANT SYMBOL AND EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS. TAKE NOTE.”
That said, it’s nice that the underlying themes didn’t get lost in the shuffle. “The Great Gatsby” is in many ways a cautionary tale of ego and excess, and no one will be walking out of this film wanting to emulate Daisy or Gatsby. Though the party scenes are grand and opulent, the vacuity at their core is never truly concealed…nor is the suggestion that, perhaps, they are transgressing age-old moral values. This film, much like its literary inspiration, leaves its viewers with sobering food for thought.
Is it worth seeing?
As a fan of the book, I was completely satisfied: it’s a compelling, faithful retelling that (hopefully) will serve as a catalyst for more high-quality classic-to-film adaptations.Not everyone will enjoy Luhrmann’s vision, but those with a love for the novel and an appreciation for grand spectacle will find much to like here.
A lush, atmospheric adaptation of an American classic. Well worth seeing.
Normalized Score: 7.9