May 10th, 2013 marked the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. This film marks the fourth time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glitzy classic has seen the big-screen treatment. It seems that in an almost poetic piece of truth, filmmakers have been reaching for their own ‘elusive green light’ in that no one has been able to cinematically capture the full power and prestige of the classic novel. It’s unusual for a book to be adapted to film every 25 years or so, but that is precisely what has happened. Alan Ladd played the mysterious Jay Gatsby in 1949, Robert Redford in 1974, Toby Stephens in the deplorable A&E TV movie in 2000, and now Leonardo Dicaprio steps into that legendary yellow car’s driver’s seat. Is the fourth time a charm?
It’s the roaring 20s in America and in the midst of America’s strongest economic boom in history, Nick Caraway (Toby Maguire) puts his writing career on hold and leaves the Midwest for the magic of New York as a bond salesman. Caraway becomes fascinated with his mysterious neighbor (Gatsby) as rumors about the man and his wealth circulate all around him. Nick is drawn into Gatsby’s lavish world and through him, the audience is presented Fitzgerald’s cautionary fable of excess, greed, and moral decay that lies beneath the surface of social luxury.
Fourth time a charm? The answer to this question is a complex one. The appeal to this film rests in the impeccable casting of Dicaprio as Gatsby and the choice of such a distinctive director in Luhrmann. Luhrmann and Dicaprio have, of course, successfully updated a classic once before with 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. While The People’s Critic was not that impressed with that film, it can be admired for its style and individuality. The Great Gatsby does not disappoint in terms of its style, which is no surprise given Luhrmann’s reputation.
The film chooses to introduce Caraway slightly differently from the novel, and in that commits its first mistake. The tone of the film is altered right from the start, and Caraway’s character is strangely identified as a flawed and beaten down man; he is introduced as a man clinging to sanity. Fans of the book will also be incredibly disappointed in some glaringly missing elements from the film’s final act. These changes result in a sacrifice of some major complexities within a major character’s past. Nonetheless, the middle section of the film is faithful to the novel and develops very well.
The cast is rounded out nicely with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom. Isla Fisher plays Tom’s mistress Myrtle and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki plays the vapid vamp, Jordan Baker. Luhrmann is guilty of rushing the pace a bit too much when it comes to developing these characters, but this is likely because he knows the story swings on the hinge of Gatsby and Caraway’s relationship. Unfortunately the pacing does affect the film’s effectiveness. This and some astonishingly poor editing reduces the film’s overall impact. Consequently, Maguire effectively sets up awe and majesty for the appearance of Dicaprio, although the anticipated reveal of his character is not quite as satisfying as it should be.
The Great Gatsby is a story of mood. A successful adaptation must transcend regurgitation of plotpoints and allow the viewer to feel and experience the raw nature of desire and time’s fleeting nature. It is here that Luhrmann does succeed. The major victory for this film is in its capturing of the essence of the novel, the time, and the message. Bold choices from contemporary music, effective use of slow motion, and inventive camera placement make the movie exciting and at times, well…Great. I do, however, question the decision for executive producer Jay-Z to use four songs by himself or Beyonce in a film that so urgently attacks bravado, audacity, and arrogance. The Great Gatsby is the best adaptation of Fitzgerald’s material, and Dicaprio adds another iconic role to his ever impressive career. While the film is not perfect and will certainly provide some disappointments for fans of the book, the film does stand on its own as a determined, flashy, show-piece of entertainment. B
The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. It is released in 3D, but it offers nothing by artificiality. Learn a lesson from the film and enjoy it in modest 2D.