Review: The Great Gatsby
After eighty-eight years of continuous publication, decades of close critical analysis, and at least one anthropomorphic cat version, you might wonder if there was anything left to say about The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about 1920s decadence as a masque for sympathetic, humanist tragedy. After watching Baz Luhrmann’s film version, you’ll know that there wasn’t.
Luhrmann, who is to parties what Michael Bay is to the U.S. military, actually seems well suited to Fitzgerald’s novel. The director of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet has made a cottage industry of adapting classic literature into modern, orgiastic pop culture events that set classic storylines in a bombastic contemporary mold. Few eras of American history are considered more bombastic than the Roaring Twenties, where the excess of the rich translated famously into unruly parties worthy of Caligula. Or so the legend goes. Luhrmann recreates this environment with his usual flair for anachronistic pop songs and overdesigned crapulence, capturing the period’s superficiality and excess with a sometimes intoxicating verve.
But beneath this dog pile of flapper dresses, champagne and giant glitter can be found a story of hope, longing and a bitter reversal of the American dream, where a mysterious millionaire named Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, throws these wild and woolly shindigs in an attempt to capture the attentions of Daisy Buchanan, played by Carey Mulligan, a married debutante who lives across the bay, and who captured Gatsby’s own attentions five years before. Gatsby enlists in his mission the young Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who lives next door to Gatsby, is an innocent abroad in New York’s rampant hedonism, and who just happens to be Daisy’s cousin.
Like Moulin Rouge! before it, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby spends its first hedonistic half seducing a milquetoast hero into a world of debaucherous sensory overload and then eventually settles into the less flattering emotional turmoil of the exaggerated caricatures who live within that space. Unlike Moulin Rouge!, Fitzgerald’s novel provides Luhrmann with no shortage of actual depth and inner conflict. Gatsby and Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, played with whole spoons of relish by Joel Edgerton, wear the treasures of their capitalistic conquerings on their sleeves, in their houses, and in their posture, and the contrast between those trappings and their darker and often pathetic real personalities leads to genuine humor, occasional passion and potent doses of harsh, meaningful irony.
But as The Great Gatsby sinks into revelation and tragedy in its second half, the pacing undeniably lags. Although this is certainly a faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original design, Luhrmann neglects to make that downturn engaging in its own right, leaving it up to the actors to bring the film’s climactic reversals to life as the story winds down. DiCaprio and Edgerton are game, fantastically so, but Tobey Maguire is stuck doing the best he can with a hero who, by definition, is within and without the story throughout this entire picture. Luhrmann’s addition of a framing device where poor Carraway writes the famous novel in an insane asylum does not add driving force to this character, it reads tacked on and pointless. And Carey Mulligan is of course playing the role of a woman used as collateral by men who would define themselves by her ownership, but Daisy’s true feelings – oft discussed (albeit usually without her actually being present) – are as always an enigma. Luhrmann doesn’t repel Fitzgerald’s intentions by making Daisy Buchanan a more focused heroine, but that still doesn’t leave poor Mulligan with much to work with. Daisy is more than a prize, or possibly much less, but never revealing her own intentions makes many of the character’s scenes feeling one-sided.
The Great Gatsby is, despite its flaws, The Great Gatsby, and provided the half-assed English Lit students of our future ignore the too-cute framing device and all the Jay-Z songs they’ll probably be able to watch this and write a fair last-minute term paper if they got drunk all weekend and forgot to read the book. (Luhrmann even provides on-screen quotes from the original novel on-screen, presumably out of sheer kindness to all these slackers.) That faithfulness is a blessing and a downfall, giving The Great Gatsby dramatic heft but an awkward pacing that’s more satisfactory in a literary medium than a cinematic one, where time is of the essence and frontloading a film with sensationalism does you no favors as the story winds down. It’s a good adaptation, and DiCaprio and Edgerton are spectacular as always, but it brings nothing new to Fitzgerald’s tome and never justifies its own existence as a pop reinterpretation of a classic story. It’s the same as it ever was, but now it’s in 3D and designed to sell soundtracks.
That this meaningful story could be told through a veil of cinematic superficiality might make Luhrmann seem clever, but without anything to actually contribute to The Great Gatsby’s greater point, particularly to audiences of the present day – seduced into theaters with the promise of glamorous sleaze – it amounts to nothing more meaningful than Gatsby’s own façade. You have to admit though, that it’s an enticing façade.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.