Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013): A Review (Review #549)


The curse of The Great Gatsby has been that it is a great novel which has had inevitably lousy adaptations.  Minus a 1926 silent film version (sadly a lost film) and a 1949 version yet to be released on DVD, every adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic (the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version and the 2000 television version) has focused far too much on either the decadence Fitzgerald chronicled before Jay and Daisy reunite or turns the already sad tale of dreams destroyed by reality into a moribund affair.  The newest version of The Great Gatsby, courtesy of Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet fame now turns his eyes to that other tale of Roaring Twenties woe.

I think this is the best adaptation of The Great Gatsby yet.  That shouldn't be interpreted to mean it is the best POSSIBLE version of The Great Gatsby, or the quintessential version of one of the great American novels.  Rather, it just means it is good enough, and that the others are weaker compared to this version. 

For those who do not know the plot (and there may be some who don't know), Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a bond broker with limited success.  He does have enough to rent out a tiny cottage on West Egg, Long Island, home to the nouveau riche.  Across the bay in East Egg live the old money crowd.  As it so happens, Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives in East End.  Married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), they live lives of quiet desperation.  Daisy is fully aware that Tom is unfaithful, but she remains with him, with only her friend, golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) to turn to.

Nick's neighbor is the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  All sorts of legends have emerged about who Gatsby is or how he came to his massive (and mysterious) fortune.  He throws lavish parties to which everyone wanders in but to which no one was actually invited.  However, Nick, to his amazement and puzzlement, receives an actual invitation, but there is an ulterior motive.  Gatsby, having learned through Jordan that Nick is Daisy's cousin, takes him under his wing to ask for a massive favor: introduce Daisy to Gatsby.  Daisy and Gatsby had been romantically involved before he went off to war.  Gatsby had lost Daisy to Tom when he returned, but now, with a second chance to recapture that love lost, he can squire the beautiful dream of Daisy away from the brutish Tom and keep her to a style she had grown accustomed to.

How Gatsby, the child of poverty, manages to gain so much wealth is quite simple (though if memory serves correct, never overtly stated): he is involved in criminal activities, working for the shady Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan). 

However, on a tense and hot afternoon, all the secrets are laid bare.  Daisy cannot bring herself to go away from Tom or deny that she did love him once, devastating Gatsby.  Returning from the city, an accident kills Tom's mistress, Myrtle (Ilsa Fisher).  Her devastated husband George (Jason Clarke) recognizes the car as Tom's, but the simple-minded mechanic is convinced that someone else was driving it.  In the end, Gatsby literally dies for his dreams while the Buchanans are able to rush off, careless people careless with everyone they encounter.

The whole story is narrated by Carroway, with him working out this sorry tale in the sanitarium he is in.

I don't understand a few things about The Great Gatsby.  Chief among them was Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Peirce's decision to have this framing device of having Nick narrate his story via a mental institution.  This was a bad decision in that it takes away from the narrative.  Once we get the story going, we stop every so often to go back to Nick either talk about the events he's narrating, or worse, typing them out into a book he calls The Great Gatsby.  Such tricks are really ridiculous and distracting, not to mention unnecessary.

Secondly, I wonder why two important plot points were eliminated.  The first was the romance between Nick and Jordan (which is nonexistent in the film) and the second and I'd say more important is after Gatsby's death when his father arrives.  Mr. Gatz is one of the handful of mourners of the man who was once the envy of all who met him, but here, we see none of the true pathos that entombed Jay Gatsby and his dream of reliving the past to a perfect future.

If anything, Luhrmann goes back to what he knows best: making large, busy, wild pictures that call attention to their artificial nature.  Nothing captures this more than when Gatsby is finally revealed at one of his uber-swanky soirees.  To Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, fireworks a'blazin' behind him, our host with the most in the figure of the beautiful DiCaprio emerges. 

Much has been made that perhaps at 38, DiCaprio is too old to play the youthful dreamer.  This might be true, but I didn't find his age a handicap.  In terms of performance, he did a strong job of playing the man who believes he can keep his dreams of the past.  The affectation of 'old sport' WAS suppose to be a put-on, and everything about Gatsby was suppose to be artificial.  As such, DiCaprio was giving the correct interpretation to him, but every so often (such as when his nerves at being reunited with Daisy get the better of him) the mask slips off to reveal a frightened man, sure of only the love that has sustained his dreams and activities.

In terms of performances, I think two stick out.  Edgerton is the ideal Tom Buchanan: brutish, unfeeling, a bully.  He projected the bigotry of the character beautifully without making us feel anything for him.  Debicki is the true star in the sadly underused role of Jordan, her brash and direct manner being something to liven up all the proceedings.  She, to her credit, makes the most of her screen-time to where we want to see more of both Jordan and Debicki (and hope she gets more roles).

I think that Maguire and Mulligan gave the performances they were asked to give.  Whether this is good or bad I leave up to the audience: the former sometimes appearing far too naïve for someone who is suppose to be turning 30 in that fateful summer, the latter perhaps a bit too ethereal to be real.  Then again the character of Daisy was always suppose to be a bit ethereal and unreal, so I really don't think I can find fault with how Mulligan played the role.

In regards to other matters, The Great Gatsby puts it all up there.  Catherine Martin's costumes and production design (the latter with Karen Murphy) are appropriately lavish and grand and a bit gaudy...all the things one expects in a Roaring Twenties period picture where such things are paramount.  I can't say that the much vaunted Jay-Z felt completely out-of-place.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes not (hearing a soft version of Mrs. Carter's Crazy in Love was odd and distracting).  Here is where Luhrmann didn't quite decide whether to contemporize The Great Gatsby with a hip-hop soundtrack or keep it with a true 20's feel (you can have rap or you can have jazz, but can you really have both?). 

One thing I didn't care for was when one of Gatsby's guests tells Carraway to basically forget any romance with Jordan.  "Rich girls don't marry poor boys," he tells Nick.  Little nods to the 1974 version aren't appreciated, and nor are deliberate rip-offs of better films.  When we discover Gatsby's body in the pool, there is no way Luhrmann was not goading us to recall the opening of Sunset Boulevard.  Such things are not just distracting, but almost insulting. 

For all that jazz in The Great Gatsby, some of the best moments are when Luhrmann keeps things simple.  I didn't find it as horrendous as others have.  It isn't a perfect film, or even the ideal version of Fitzgerald's definitive work.  What The Great Gatsby is instead is a big picture that mostly works, close to the source material, that functions remarkably well all things considered. 

The Great Gatsby is not a fake but it is also fails to capture the elusive green light of being the definitive adaptation.   



  1. I am still unsure about seeing the film, although I have not read the book. Good review though.


    1. Thank you. The book is beautiful, and while the movie is not perfect, on the whole it is a better adaptation than the two that have come before.


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