The Great Gatsby ReviewMay 22, 2013
Although faithful to the novel and decently acted, Baz Luhrmann’s direction critically harms what was almost a great adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
It can be an interesting experience to see a classic novel transformed into a film, for usually such projects will either be a massive success or two hours of dashed hopes and dreams. This has happened many times before over the course of the history of film – some adaptations are great, and then others are absolute crap. Baz Luhrmann has taken the risk of either embarrassing himself or gaining international recognition or his latest directorial offering, a stylized take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, has the notoriously flamboyant director proved worthy to tackle such beloved material with this film?
The year is 1922, and World War I veteran and Yale graduate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has come to New York City to become a bond salesman in a booming market economy. He soon moves into West Egg, an affluent neighborhood twenty miles away from the city on Long Island. One day, Nick is invited over to the home of his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) in East Egg, the neighborhood across the river. While there, he learns more of his next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – during this visit, they all discuss the matters regarding Gatsby’s lifestyle, which involves being a recluse as he opens his house each night for absurdly extravagant parties. However, one day Nick receives an invitation from Gatsby, supposedly the first known invitation ever sent out by Gatsby himself. Soon after meeting his illustrious neighbor, however, Nick then finds himself falling into a circle of dark secrets, obsession, and deception.
I was never a fan of the original novel, for my experience with The Great Gatsby growing up was being forcibly subjected to it in my junior literature class, akin to most people I would assume. However, I still respect that novel for its many successful elements, along with the long-lasting literary and thematic worth of Fitzgerald’s story. Unfortunately, this take on The Great Gatsby is only a decent adaptation. I will say that this film is very faithful to the novel, and that is possibly the greatest compliment I can give to the story itself. Events and conversations directly from the source material make a successful transition to the big screen here, so devoted fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel will be happy to see that everything is largely intact.
Baz Luhrmann’s script also retains some of the novel’s themes, if only in small ways; chiefly Fitzgerald’s cynicism towards the actions of the wealthy and frivolity during the Jazz Age. However, the problem with this adaptation is Baz Luhrmann’s choice of style – which I will get to later – since it makes the story of The Great Gatsby less interesting than it was in the novel. Considering that this film is nearly two and a half hours long, the tone and style of The Great Gatsby work against it, making the first two acts strangely boring. Thankfully the final act was what I wanted from this film during its entirety – the last 45 minutes is full of drama, intensity and emotion that certainly benefits from a different tone. Nonetheless, what precedes this final act of The Great Gatsby makes this adaptation a somewhat disappointing experience.
The cast of The Great Gatbsy is definitely one of its strengths. Leonardo DiCaprio nails his role as Jay Gatsby, bringing with him the same sort of boyish charm and personality that made him a star in Titanic. Normally this might be a misstep for a former child actor, but this approach works for the character. He also channels the secretive side of Gatsby quite well, also managing to bring intense emotion when necessary. Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the most talented actors in the business, and he proves that once again with his spectacular work in The Great Gatsby. Tobey Maguire is decent enough as Nick Carraway, but after his embarrassing work in Spider-Man 3, I find it difficult for me to take him as seriously as I once did. With that in mind I would have personally preferred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role, but even so Maguire does a decent job in The Great Gatsby.
Carey Mulligan does great work as Daisy Buchanan, for she made me believe that her character was a conflicted, Midwestern girl struggling to adjust into an Eastern lifestyle. Ultimately, each of the cast members ranging from the ones already mentioned to Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke all put forth their best effort in The Great Gatsby, but the unfortunate thing is that they are directed to act in rather exaggerated ways at times. Perhaps this was done as to reflect the time period of the story, but it doesn’t work quite as intended.
Baz Luhrmann is a director who has defined his career on an extreme case of style over substance. This stylistic approach carries over into The Great Gatsby, for ultimately Baz Luhrmann’s direction is the critical flaw of this particular adaptation. I cannot deny that The Great Gatsby is pretty to look at, for there are many shots full of bright colors and sparkle, and the cinematography itself is fine enough. The set and costume designers should also be commended for their work since they succeed the most in attempting to capture the essence of the Jazz Age. However, the problem is that the style is so bombastic and loud in terms of its visuals that it makes a small story an overwhelming visual experience. Sure, that may be the director’s signature style, but it simply does not work in The Great Gatsby. This film is truly a case of sensory overload, and this is not good for a story that is meant to impact your heart and mind rather than beat the senses to a bloody pulp.
I suppose I wouldn’t complain as much if most of the special effects were well done, but generally, they are not. Much of the computer-generated imagery is unconvincing and overbearing, making this costume drama feel inexcusably fake at times. The most memorable shots are those done involving real sets, simple conversations and authentic backgrounds, which are sadly few in number. I wish the soundtrack could have been better, but sadly this is not the case, for it has its share of problems. Craig Robinson, a regular Baz Luhrmann contributor, has composed some nice orchestral pieces for The Great Gatsby, but they are upset by original songs from Jay-Z and Beyonce of all people. I understand the approach in trying to make this story more appealing to a modern audience, but I would have preferred Jazz Age music as opposed to the anachronistic compositions.
The Great Gatsby is not a terrible film by any means, for anyone expecting a faithful adaptation of the classic novel will get that here. Also, the cast assembled for this picture is pretty great, led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar portrayal of Jay Gatsby. Nonetheless, the film is an undeniable disappointment considering the improper stylistic choices in this film. What should have been a more plainly-directed screenplay turned about to be a mix between classic drama, a Zack Snyder flick and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which never felt quite right to me. I still recommend this film to anyone who has not experienced The Great Gatsby, but it would be better just to dust off a copy of the novel itself. For those that were eagerly anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby, prepare for a true letdown.
Second Opinion – Kayla Herrera
Beautifully adapted from the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film weaves a tragic tale of a lonely man in love living in 1922 high society New York. Third wheel and bystander, Nick Carraway, writes vicariously of his rich friends as they slowly destroy each other’s lives with greed and boredom. Carraway comments that it was only Jay Gatsby that did not disgust him.
The Great Gatsby was directed by Baz Lurmann, the same director who brought to life Moulin Rouge. It’s very easy to spot similarities in his directing style between the two films. His style is whimsical and surreal and produces a fantastic twist on a sometimes dry novel. Despite some of the novel’s dry scenes, Lurmann did not wander far from the storyline in Fitzgerald’s novel. And even then the film succeeded, making it the best novel-to-film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time.