The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby. Photo: Warner Bros.
The Great Gatsby. Photo: Warner Bros.

With the DVD release of Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant Gatsby adaptation due in the next few months, here’s a review of the film. Not to everyone’s taste, no one can deny it’s visually stunning and let’s face it, who can resist Leo? Have a read and if you’ve seen it leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Verdict: “Do you think it’s too much?” asks Gatsby of Nick, in one of the pivotal scenes of this classic tragedy. The overwhelming answer from cinema critics seems to be ‘hell yes’. Luhrmann’s blockbuster has been roundly criticised for lack of emotion, missing the point of the novel and just downright over-glittering. I’m a self-confessed Fitzgerald nut, in addition to being a cinephile. I readily admit that since Zelda and Scott hated the 1926 adaptation of the beautiful novel they are probably spinning in their graves over the brash, bright and bold Jay Z-heavy 2013 version. But nevertheless, in a crazy-beautiful-sparkly way I think it works, and I unashamedly loved it. 

 The most perfect book ever written adapted into a blockbusting epic with more cocktails, flapper dresses and 3-piece suits than you can shake a stick at… what can possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, most critics are arguing. It may be that I’m coloured by my undying love for the book, but I find myself mostly at odds with most of the mainstream press reviews.Of course, I don’t think any film adaptation can come within a mile of touching the magic of the novel. And admittedly Gatsby the movie may not be for everyone, but I find it hard to believe most won’t be intoxicated by the (mostly) faithful dialogue, stunning visuals and brilliant cast.

I am a lifelong devotee of F Scott Fitzgerald’s work and have read The Great Gatsby half a dozen times. Despite this, I hated the 1974 ‘classic’ and so when I heard about the 2013 adaptation I was excited beyond words. I’ve seen a lot of negative press about the choice of Luhrmann as director, with phrases like ‘too flashy’ and ‘style over substance’ bandied around liberally. I have read a handful of big-name reviews of the film, and pretty much generally disagree with all of them.

Perhaps I have crappy taste and should be banned from every picture-house in the land. But it seems to me that reviewers everywhere from Empire to The Guardian are claiming that Luhrmann’s film fails because it doesn’t tell the story of Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s point of view. Am I missing something?

The film is The Great Gatsby, not The Great Fitzgerald’s Commentary on the Decadence of 1920s America; the movie is an adaptation of the novel. True, Luhrmann’s opulent party scenes are practically dripping with champagne and you have to shade your eyes from the glitter of the sequins, but I couldn’t help but interpret the sombre intercuts of Nick during the drunken soirée at Myrtle’s, or the dark looks of DiCaprio’s Gatsby at his parties as this apparently disregarded note of disdain that’s inherent in the story.

What critics seem to demand from Luhrmann is a good look at the hard-drinking, loose-moral population of Fitzgerald’s novel, but only through a staunchly critical lens. While it is blazingly apparent to anyone with an ounce of brain matter that the novel is a commentary on the Jazz Age that was teetering on the brink of disaster, I don’t feel that Luhrmann’s decision to have actresses dance in 1920s costumes necessarily undermines the book’s intention.

But anyway, the movie. Despite my gripes with other reviewers, I don’t think anyone can deny that Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin have fashioned a beautiful 1920s aesthetic for the film, admittedly with an unshakeable sense of 2013. When I first heard the soundtrack – produced by Jay Z, in case you’ve been living under a rock – I wasn’t exactly in love with it. However, combined with the dazzling visuals I think the juxtaposition of the old and the new offers an interesting interpretation of the story. The whole thing was simply beautiful and, alright I’ll admit it, at some points it did feel as if the profundity of the novel wasn’t there – but the thing was so beautiful it didn’t seem to matter too much.

I don’t suppose anyone was expecting a motion picture so emotionally moving that it would knock the original source material out of the water. And if they were, they’ll be massively disappointed. There are moments where the film feels like it’s going to stumble into profound territory – the idea of the whole thing being a collection of memories is a nice start, and there are times when DiCaprio as Gatsby seems like he’s hitting full throttle Leo, in frank discussions with Nick or romantic speeches to Daisy. But it never quite grabs you by the throat.

On paper, the casting looked perfect to me. In practice however, it felt as if there was something missing: I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, and the cast was good, but not quite as bewitching as I’d anticipated. Tobey Maguire was the epitome of how I imagine Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, to be. Alternately pathetic, endearing and bland, Maguire carried the film’s original framing story of Nick’s visits to a sanatorium as well as the daunting task of playing Fitzgerald’s celebrated unreliable narrator.

Amitabh Bachchan’s cameo as the mysterious Meyer Wolfsheim was entertaining, and I thought Elizabeth Debicki and Joel Edgerton, as Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan, were vivid in their portrayals and stayed loyal to Fitzgerald’s creations. I had looked forward to Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Leo’s Gatsby, but I came away from the film feeling that they had just missed out on something special. There was something missing, that tragic spark that characterised the novel and made it the classic that it is. Ultimately, I felt Mulligan bested Mia Farrow’s 1974 Daisy, but in the battle of the Gatsbies (?) the spoils went to the mighty Robert Redford.

All in all, I loved the movie, and I thought it was a beautiful and stylish interpretation of one of the greatest stories ever told. I still disagree that the movie fails due to its lack of über-deep emotional depth, but admittedly I didn’t come away from the tragic end feeling as stirred-up as I do every time I read the book. I don’t think any filmic adaptation could really achieve this, however.

What Baz Luhrmann has brought to the table is a pretty satisfying depiction of the raucous parties described in The Great Gatsby, and it’s a must-see. There are some beautifully tender moments between DiCaprio and Mulligan, and despite what the papers will have you believe, it’s not all glitz and glamour. But mostly, it is.

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