The Great Gatsby – Movie Review
Rating: C- (Below Average)
Despite being hailed as one of the greatest pieces of literature, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been scarcely adapted to the big screen. The only one he ever saw in his lifetime was a silent version, which he and his wife Zelda reportedly hated. The 1974 adaptation, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was a fairly lightweight take with barely any energy on the screen. With the heavily stylistic director Baz Luhrmann at the helm on a new adaptation, maybe this legendary novel could be adapted with a much needed pizzazz that was lacking in the previous attempt. Sadly, even as an admirer of Luhrmann’s previous work, his Great Gatsby ends up going too far off the deep end.
Luhrmann has always been a filmmaker very much in favour of big and spectacular visuals that make his otherwise typical love stories more special and interesting than most directors would have done with the same material. However, he has his downsides, too, especially in regards to his openings. From Strictly Ballroom to Australia, he has a tendency to throw too much at rapid succession in the first ten minutes, until he finally calms down and lets the story proceed in a less chaotic manner. With The Great Gatsby, the frenetic style rarely stops and that quickly becomes a distraction. Just when I thought Luhrmann was going to take a breather, he brings the over-the-top style back for another round. This type of filmmaking was appropriate for his big musical extravaganza Moulin Rouge, but it does not fit into the world as originally written by Fitzgerald. Even Moulin Rouge, with its Can-Can Dancers and big modern song numbers, knew when to let the story be told.
In the few scenes where Luhrmann does let the characters breathe, it is hardly much better as the writing betrays them. Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway were somewhat interesting personalities on the page, but Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay makes them into vapid and one-dimensional beings. None of them are particularly fleshed out or all that interesting. While Nick is meant to be a window into the story, he proves mostly redundant in the grand scheme of things, except to bring Gatsby and Daisy together.
Luhrmann also makes the baffling and unnecessary decision to occasionally feature Nick telling the story in a sanatorium, even recycling the typewriting narration technique from Moulin Rouge. These are all unlikeable rich folk, but that does not excuse the lack of interest and compassion I felt for these personalities. This makes it all the more impressive that the actors manage to deliver. Despite his cardboard character, Tobey Maguire does a decent job portraying Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan certainly captures the quiet uncertainty within Daisy. Leonardo DiCaprio brings a smidgen of charm to Gatsby, presenting the same dashing smile that made women swoon for him upon Titanic’s release.
However, the stand-out actor is Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, doing an excellent job of showing the character’s gruffness, despite the one-dimensionality given to him. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki also impresses as Jordan Baker, as more than the other actors, she seems like she has traveled forward in time from the 1920s to appear in this film and she certainly has a long career ahead of her. Sadly, despite being a prominent character in the book, Jordan Baker is rather under-written to the point where until it is quickly mentioned by one of the other actors, her romantic relationship with Nick is unknown to the audience.
The flapper culture is also very evident in Catherine Martin’s exceptional costumes and production design. Despite the flashiness of the cinematography, the detail of her work is still on-screen long enough to transport the audience back to the Roaring Twenties. As an immense aficionado of that decade, I appreciated the care that Martin took in portraying this wonderful pre-Depression time period. From the haircuts to the hats to the many sights of Gatsby’s famous parties, there was at least a couple of appealing elements as the film zipped by at its ridiculous pace.
For all of the hard work that was put into The Great Gatsby’s design, the same unfortunately cannot be said about the soundtrack. Luhrmann previously used anachronistic tunes in Moulin Rouge, but that was an incredible aspect of that film, because the songs were strangely appropriate to the time period as well as the mood and what the characters were feeling. Most importantly, the song choices in Moulin Rouge were actually good, so it was not a distraction when Ewan McGregor belted into an Elton John song.
In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann has party-goers dancing the Charleston to ear-puncturing rap and the annoying wailing of Lana Del Rey. Maybe if the choices of music were stronger, this would not be an issue, but Luhrmann actually teases the viewer with small extracts from “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Let’s Misbehave”, much better pieces from that time period. Frankly, I feel the use of rap and other modern pop songs does a complete disservice to that incredible decade and the jazz musicians of the era. It mystifies me that this is the same director who chose the fantastically implemented tracks in Moulin Rouge.
It is probably unfair to compare The Great Gatsby so often to Moulin Rouge, but when Luhrmann uses so much of the structure and style of that film, he practically invites the comparisons. Maybe he should have gone one step further and turned The Great Gatsby into a musical and then the excess would have been appropriate and not as jarring. Baz Luhrmann throws so much at the screen and when it peels away to reveal the characters, there is nothing under the surface. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing might simply be too literary to work in a visual medium and we might not see a worthy adaptation of The Great Gatsby and this is a case where what works in a book does not necessarily translate on screen. Chances are high that students forced to read the novel in English classes will give Luhrmann’s sparkly adaptation a look, but that will ultimately result in an unsatisfactory book report.
Review by: Stefan Ellison