Film Review: The Great Gatsby

by Carrie Kahn on May 10, 2013

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby has been generating buzz for months. Critics, Hollywood insiders, bloggers, and anyone with a pulse have all been asking: Can an Australian director, filming in Australia, with many British and Australian actors, pull off a film of a classic American novel? Will filming in 3D help or hinder the film? Will the film be worth seeing? The short answers are no, no, and no.

Before we get to the long answers, though, first here’s a one-minute plot refresher for anyone who slept through 11th grade English. Boy (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby) meets Girl (Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan); Boy and Girl fall in love; Boy goes off to war (WWI, in this case); Girl marries someone else (Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan); Boy does absolutely everything in his power, including amassing great wealth and reinventing himself, to win Girl back. Various sub-plots, complications, drama, and tragedy figure into the story as well, and, of course, the main point of the novel is to explore nothing less than the American dream. The novel’s themes of wealth, class, status, materialism, and idealism are timeless, and are just as relevant today as they were nearly 100 years ago (look no further than Mad Men’s Don Draper for a very recent incarnation of Gatsby.)

Back, then, to the long answer to the opening questions. The film is all style and virtually no substance. Aside from using 3D, the film also employs a host of other nifty technical tricks: it is full of garish, drenched colors, quick cuts, split screens, slow motion, annoying voice over narration, floating words on screen, and sepia-toned flashbacks. Luhrmann’s frenetic style may have served him well in films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, but here such blockbuster production techniques just feel foolish. Gatsby is a story that would benefit from a subtler approach, and subtlety is not Luhrmann’s strong suit.

Luhrmann has essentially turned Fitzgerald’s classic into a graphic novel on steroids. Gatsby’s West Egg mansion, extra huge here, for example, looms above the viewer cartoonishly. Even Gatsby’s first appearance on screen feels more suited to The Wizard of Oz, with DiCaprio’s 3D face twinkling at us ridiculously – – the wizard of West Egg, indeed. Such effects only make the picture feel campy and silly; bigger and bolder do not necessarily mean better.

The story, too, has been dumbed down a bit; Luhrmann simplifies plots and themes to a base level, makes everything too literal, and repeatedly hits us over the head to make sure we Know What Is Important. How many times do we need to see that damn green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in shimmery, dreamy close up?  Enough already. We get it.

Luhrmann can over explain the plot all he wants, but his film does not come anywhere close to matching the elegance of Fitzgerald’s words. Aside from its quintessential American themes, the book has always been known for its eloquent, lyrical prose; the novel has often been called unfilmable, since the inherent beauty of its language has much to do with the pleasure of the story. Part of the reason Luhrmann’s picture falls flat, then, is because three-dimensional excessiveness is no substitute for stirring writing.

Luhrmann also takes great liberties with Fitzgerald’s text, deleting entire scenes, and completely rewriting key passages. I knew we were in trouble from the film’s very beginning, when Luhrmann changes the line, “Just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had” (Narrator Nick’s father’s advice from the book’s opening paragraph), to: “Always try to see the best in people.” What?  Now Nick’s father just sounds banal instead of wise.

Luhrmann’s most egregious creation, though, is probably the absurd, totally unnecessary framing device he uses to tell the story. In this version, Nick is in a sanitarium, describing Gatsby to a psychiatrist, who urges Nick to write out his tale of Gatsby, Daisy, et al. Again, what? From this set up, the film then occasionally cuts to Nick at his typewriter, furiously writing, or talking to his psychiatrist. Sometimes Nick’s sentences even appear on screen as he types them, a pointless and pretentious effect.

The actors don’t fare much better in the midst of this bloated mess. Carey Mulligan is one note as Daisy, wide-eyed and breathless. Australian actor Joel Edgerton does capture Tom’s arrogance well, but his American accent comes and goes, which is distracting. And poor milquetoast Tobey Maguire doesn’t get much to do at all as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway besides sound like he’s 80 years old as he narrates the picture in an odd, gravelly voice. Nick is supposed to be an observer, sure, but this Nick fades so much into the background that we are left to wonder why he is in the story at all.

As for Gatsby, I would have liked to see Ryan Gosling in the role. I think he has the necessary confidence, charm, intelligence, and style that Leonardo DiCaprio lacks. DiCaprio seems to be struggling to find the right tone for Gatsby, using speech inflections and mannerisms that seem overly affected, and his earnestness and idealism come off not so much as admirable, but as almost sociopathic.

The soundtrack has also received much advance attention; purists have objected to Luhrmann’s use of modern day, hip-hop music to score a 1920s Jazz Age story. While I do understand these objections, I think the music is actually the best thing in the picture. Because the film is such an unreal, heightened experience, not using traditional period music feels completely normal, and the music is at least interesting when what’s happening on screen is not. And, thematically, using today’s popular music does reflect Luhrmann’s very modern take on the novel, just as when Fitzgerald, by quoting his era’s popular music lyrics in his book, reflected the pop culture of his time.

The only other aspect of the film I can commend is the occasional humorous moment, which, again, at least fits well with the film’s comic book sensibility. Gatsby’s flashy makeover of Nick’s simple cottage in anticipation of Daisy’s arrival, for example, is beautifully choreographed for comedic effect. Gatsby’s excessive preparations (including ordering a grotesque amount of over-the-top floral arrangements), his schoolboy nervousness, and Nick’s wry amusement at the entire spectacle elicit genuine laughs.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, Luhrmann said that he wanted the filmgoer to feel the same immediacy as someone reading the novel back in 1925 would have. I don’t think Luhrmann has achieved that effect – but I know how to: Read. The. Book. Do yourself a favor – help out your local used bookstore, buy a cheap paperback copy, and spend a cozy Sunday morning curled up with it. You will be transported into Gatsby’s story the way Fitzgerald intended, and you won’t even need those pesky 3D glasses.


The Great Gatsby opens in Bay Area theaters today.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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