Great Gatsby, The (Australia/United States, 2013)

May 09, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Great Gatsby, The Poster

The Great Gatsby is widely recognized as one of the best American novels of the 20th century, although many remember it as a book we were forced to read in high school. Thus far, there have been several attempts to convert the book into a movie (most notably the 1974 version starring Robert Redford) but none have been particularly successful in transforming the magic of the novel to the screen. Sadly, this new version, tarted up with 3-D effects and other kinds of audio and visual chicanery, doesn't break the trend. Although the story is faithful (at least in broad strokes) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale, there's a soullessness to the proceedings that saps it of energy. As unlikely as it might seem, high-energy director Baz Luhrmann has in fact crafted a somnambulant motion picture.

Obviously, The Great Gatsby is a difficult novel to get right so one has to give Luhrmann credit for trying. Some of his choices are bizarre and there are times when the film seems to have morphed into the idiot stepchild of Moulin Rouge. The party sequences, which feature music from the likes of Kanye West and Jay Z, are so wildly out-of-step with the rest of the movie that they take the viewer completely out of the moment. There's also a sense that maybe Luhrmann wanted to go further with these scenes (in terms of depicting debauchery) but was curtailed by the limitations of the PG-13 rating. The decision to film the movie in 3-D, while not catastrophic, isn't a good one, since the problems of too-dim images and occasional motion blur diminish The Great Gatsby's look. And the occasional use of pop-up words on screen comes across as distracting and juvenile.

This presentation of the story opens with an unnecessary framing device, with Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) telling his tale to a psychologist in a sanitarium. It flashes back to 1922 New York and introduces the main characters. In addition to Nick, who has moved to the city to sell bonds, we meet his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy's best friend, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Then there's Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wealthy, mysterious man who lives in a mansion next door to the little cottage where Nick resides. Gatsby wastes no time in befriending Nick, but he has ulterior motives. He wants his new buddy to arrange a tea party where he can "accidentally" encounter Daisy. As it turns out, they were once very close and Gatsby wants to rekindle their former romance.

As a book, The Great Gatsby is a compelling read. As translated into movie form by Luhrmann, it's something of a struggle. The pacing is consistently off. The movie lurches along unevenly, daring the viewer to remain invested and interested. Ultimately, it's hard to care about any of the characters. The period details, when not compromised by the 3-D, are nicely rendered. Still, it doesn't really feel like the 1920s. There are too many out-of-period tweaks that dispel the illusion. It's one thing for Luhrmann to do this sort of thing in a fantasy/musical like Moulin Rouge but quite another thing to force-feed it into an adaptation of a revered drama. One of the great strengths of Fitzgerald's novel is that it presents a you-are-there window into the roaring '20s without peeking through the portal of The Great Crash and subsequent Great Depression. That's one of the few things the 1974 adaptation got right; Luhrmann, out of a need or desire to amp things up, misses the mark here.

There's no arguing that Leonardo DiCaprio looks the part of Gatsby. The movie's best material comes early when he's still a half-realized presence, a silhouette on a dock or a half-glimpsed figure in a window. His "unveiling" is spectacular, a stunning close-up of a smiling DiCaprio. After that, however, the actor has trouble inhabiting the character. His Gatsby experiences bouts of stiffness and when he says "old sport," there's a lack of conviction in the way the words are spoken. DiCaprio's performance is better than Redford's but this is far from the definitive interpretation of Jay Gatsby. Tobey Maguire is fine as Nick but his function is more as an observer than a participant. Carey Mulligan's Daisy is unremarkable in every way. And Joel Edgerton is just a mustache twirl away from doing a Snidely Whiplash impersonation.

It would be interesting to know how fans of The Great Gatsby will respond to the movie because they're the only ones likely to see it. In between the instances of excess, there are moments of profound beauty and the novel's themes about love, wealth, celebrity, and power are intact. With Romeo + Juliet, Baz Lurhmann was able to use his over-the-top style to make a classic exciting and relevant. With The Great Gatsby, he proves unable to repeat history or to convince naysayers that Australia was a hiccup.

Great Gatsby, The (Australia/United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:23
U.S. Release Date: 2013-05-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1