Note: This is a largely spoiler-free review. That said, read at your own risk.
The Great Gatsby is one of those film adaptations that made me jump up and down excitedly upon first hearing about it and then, approximately twenty seconds later, feel absolutely nauseated. This is the problem with adapting a piece of truly iconic literature; Fitzgerald’s novel is so perfect in its original form that it’s hard to imagine any other media could properly do it justice. In fact, this has been attempted on three previous occasions without any real success. Now it has been done a fourth time.
After seeing Baz Luhrmann’s film, contemplating it thoroughly, wanting desperately to love it and feeling saddened that I simply cannot, I have come back to my original feeling–no other media can truly capture the magic of The Great Gatsby.
The entire first half of the film amounted to Baz Luhrmann showing off as a director. This would be fine if his intent was to showcase the story at its fullest potential, but what is created is more akin to him standing on the rooftop of a large building screaming “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!” It has all of the over-the-top visuals, sweeping shots, and half-dressed women you would expect of a Luhrmann film. In fact, with the aspiring writer in the middle of an emotional breakdown, the star-crossed, obsessive love, and the shadiness of most of the characters, you may momentarily wonder if you’re watching Moulin Rouge 2 (though without the same quirky charm). Gatsby is all about style, seriously sacrificing some substance so that Luhrmann can have once more dance number full of confetti and fringe.
There’s no denying that Gatsby stars some heavy-hitting actors, if only in name. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan should be a brilliant Gatsby-Daisy duo. Tobey Maguire should be the perfect everyman to be narrator Nick Carraway. However, for the most part the three main actors and indeed the rest of the cast come off as caricatures. There is something reminiscent of a school play where there is disconnect between actor and script that reeks of either apathy or laziness. DiCaprio does redeem himself in the latter portions of the film in which he displays Gatsby’s growing obsession and eventual breakdown beautifully.
The film is also marred by a distinct overuse of voice overs, with Tobey Maguire reciting passages from the book word for word and at times explaining things to the audience. It feels as if Luhrmann didn’t trust his viewer to follow what was going on. Paired with a soundtrack that doesn’t always mesh well with the story (Jay-Z, what were you doing?), the audio portion of the film is just as ridiculous as the visuals.
The latest adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece amounts to nothing but spectacle. Even the more subdued and far more successful second half cannot fully save the train wreck that is the first half. The beauty of the novel is in its subtleties, the quiet moments that happen with the roar of the music as just a faint whisper in the background. There is nothing subtle about this adaptation, making it feel juvenile. Its overuse of visual effects and an anachronistic soundtrack reveal a blatant attempt to appeal to the video game generation, or at least the stereotypes associated with it. There are definitely video games that are more successful on a narrative level than this film.
In the end, I felt much like Gatsby. I desperately tried to grasp onto the thing I love while watching it slip through my fingers and become nothing more than a faint green light in the distance before it was extinguished entirely. Luhrmann may be a genius who created a fantastically meta adaptation in which the audience will walk out laughing at the absurdity and futility of it all, how in the end it all means nothing. Or, Luhrmann may simply be another egotistical Hollywood director who squashed out the beauty of the narrative and the talent of his cast in order to achieve his vision, which falls horribly short.
I’m inclined to believe the latter.
That being said, most audiences will enjoy this film. It’s entertaining. It’s visually pleasing. It’s over-the-top. But for those who have loved the novel as I have, be prepared for disappointment.