Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Premise: An adaptation of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Midwestern bondsman (Tobey Maguire) moves to the East Coast and meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a flamboyant millionaire with a mysterious past.
What Works: The Great Gatsby was directed by Baz Luhrmann, who had previously directed the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet and 2001’s Moulin Rouge! This movie is recognizably a Luhrmann production and it works best when the director goes for his usual over-the-top style. The party scenes especially recall Moulin Rouge! but in some ways they are done better here, with a little more restraint and less obnoxiousness. The casting of The Great Gatsby is generally very good especially Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. The combination of DiCaprio’s onscreen charm and his Hollywood star-status makes him an ideal pick for the title role and moments like Gatsby’s initial reveal play on this very well. Carey Mulligan is also a great casting pick as Daisy; Mulligan has the look of a classic Hollywood actress and of the entire cast she is best able to simultaneously convey the glamour and the underlying melancholy of this story.
What Doesn’t: A film adaptation of The Great Gatsby is inherently problematic. The novel is a literary book, which is to say that its most outstanding qualities are primarily embedded within the writing. The Great Gatsby is a book whose plot and characters are secondary. Its storyline is virtually indistinguishable from a television soap opera and the characters tread on cartoonish parody. The reason that the novel has become such a legendary piece of literature has to do with the quality of Fitzgerald’s prose, the way he captured the essence of a particular time in American history, and the subtlety and precision with which he depicted the main character’s disillusionment. This kind of nuance is best suited to the language arts; cinema is rarely able to covey it. By adapting The Great Gatsby into a motion picture, the filmmakers inherently lose what makes this title unique and they are left to craft a movie out of its lesser qualities. In the 2013 film the problems of adapting The Great Gatsby become apparent once the title character enters the storyline. Up until that point the film plays on the decadent glamour of 1920s night life and the mystery around Gatsby is engaging. But once Gatsby is revealed the momentum of the movie begins to slow and none of the turns in the plot are surprising. When Gatsby’s true background is revealed it isn’t shocking or even that interesting. The story of The Great Gatsby is supposed to be something of a letdown as Nick Carraway discovers the cracked humanity behind Gatsby’s facade but what the filmmakers do instead is bore us with a romantic love-triangle that isn’t much better than that of the Twilight series. Regardless of the challenges inherent to the source material, the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby has its own unique flaws, such as an unnecessary frame narrative. The moviemakers invent a flashback structure in which the main character tells us the story but the frame does not add anything to the film. The picture is also hurt by the miscasting of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Maguire is a competent actor but the role requires a younger man, or at least someone who possesses a more convincing aura of naiveté and innocence.
Bottom Line: The Great Gatsby isn’t a bad film. The party scenes are spectacular and the actors provide some very good performances. But the movie is too long with a story that’s too short to fill the running time. The Great Gatsby is a classic example of a book that may be best left in its original medium.
Episode: #439 (May 19, 2013)