A film review by Craig J. Koban May 14, 2013


2013, PG-13, 142 mins.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby  /  Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan  /  Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson  /  Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway  /  Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Directed by Baz Luhrmann / Written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald


I can definitely see director Baz Luhrmann’s unending passion for the underlining material of THE GREAT GATSBY, which, of course, is based on the iconic 1925 novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  

The novel – adapted to the screen far too many times to keep track – is considered one of the great American literary works about Jazz Age-centric wanton decadence and materialism while providing a cautionary message about the nature of achieving the American Dream via the unruliness of youthful ambition run amok.  Clearly, the story has modern day analogies, especially when it comes to pointing a figure at the often reckless upper one per cent of those with limitless wealth that use it to get what they want through any means necessary.  Clearly, THE GREAT GATSBY feels as topical as ever. 

Here’s the problem, though, with Luhrmann’s adaptation.  Even though it’s, as mentioned, easy to grasp how attracted the filmmaker is to Fitzgerald’s prose, Luhrmann’s GREAT GATSBY is an emotionally distancing affair.  It’s not that the film isn’t faithful, per se, to the literary story, nor is the film’s lavish and epically mounted production design faulty.  The basic ingredients of Fitzgerald's narrative are here and Luhrmann – who's as proficient and talented of a visual stylist as they come (see WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET, MOULIN ROUGE and AUSTRALIA) – creates a colorful and vibrant kaleidoscope of the Roaring Twenties as so few have in the past.  Alas, his GREAT GATSBY, for as aesthetically dazzling as it is, seems to overlook its human element.   Far too often, the film’s high tech 3D-infused (more of that in a bit) sheen makes the actors feel like puppets in their own movie, which negatively leads to a rather hollow experience. 



To those that are abundantly familiar with the source book, I will keep plot descriptions here relatively brief.  Nick Carraway (who serves both as the film’s narrator and portal for the audience into the story, well played by Toby Maguire) is an ex-WWI soldier, Yale graduate, and alcoholic that tells the story of his encounters with a man named Gatsby – the most hopeful man he has ever met - to a psychiatrist.  The film then flashes back to 1922 New York, where Nick reveals that he worked selling bonds on Wall Street.  While there, he hooks back up with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom (the fine Aussie actor Joel Edgerton).  From this point Nick becomes entranced with the enigmatic visage of a huge mansion that’s next door to his quaint little cottage, owned by the equally enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Gatsby extends a highly rare personal invitation to Nick to attend one of his infamously grand parties.  

Nick becomes easily entrenched in the hedonistic and apparently consequence-free world of Gatsby, but underneath all of the rich man’s possessions, wealth, and stature lays a somewhat vulnerable man that wants to reconnect with the love that got away from him, who just happens to be Daisy.  Gatsby begs his new BFF to help him construct a scenario by which Daisy and he can accidentally reconnect.  Nick dutifully obliges, and sparks certainly are there between Gatsby and Daisy – who have known each other since their teens – which concerns Nick, seeing as her brutish husband would certainly not approve of such indiscretions.  As Nick begins to learn of Tom’s own bouts with infidelity, he also comes to learn that Gatsby is a walking contradiction and does not appear to be the man he claims to be. 

For starters, THE GREAT GATSBY is an unmitigated eye-stunner.  Catherine Martin’s production design – recreating Gatsby’s opulent mansion that seems to go on forever – and Simon Duggan’s sumptuous cinematography gives the film a hyper-bright and vivacious façade that further gives the film a palpable sense of rich texture.  It should be noted that the film does not have a verisimilitude that many other period films have, as it uses virtuoso visual effects to envision the world of 1920’s New York in all of its then-maturing, heavily industrialized splendor.  THE GREAT GATSBY is as CGI and effects heavy as a fantasy film; it never really looks and feels real, but more of a heightened sense of a surreal reality.  Perhaps Luhrmann’s visual excesses here mirror the excesses of Gatsby's world.  Much like MOULIN ROUGE, Luhrmann makes anachronistic usage of modern day hip hop and pop tunes on the soundtrack, which prove this time to be neither distracting nor altogether fitting for the material.  Make no mistake about it: Luhrmann has lovingly and meticulously crafted a film of beautiful opulence and extravagance. 

Unfortunately, all of the pristine eye candy in the world can’t save a film that loses its way with its character dynamics.  The real heart of Fitzgerald's work, I think, is in the insular world and fragile, secrets-harboring mindsets of its characters.  This film’s show-stopping visual dynamism overwhelms this greatly; far too much of the time, the characters don’t have time to breathe and inhabit their largely artificial environments, mostly because they are pathetically suppressed by them.  THE GREAT GATSBY has always explored the more internalized psychological world of its personas, but when you have the actors, for example, driving through vast computer generated cityscapes via some obvious and ubiquitous green screen work, I found myself struggling to relate to them.  This adaptation has also been rather unwisely made as a 3D picture, which seems both rather suspicious and foolhardy in terms of motive.  Not only does the dimness of 3D do a disservice the film’s effervescent color palette, but it also serves no real other function to propel Fitzgerald's story and themes forward.  Much like the title character, the 3D here is just a false gimmick to lure you in.  

And it’s not that the performances are lacking.  DiCaprio is tailored made for Gatsby, embodying all of the role’s sense of confidence, charm, and deeply internalized helplessness and uncertainty.  Joel Edgerton, an actor/writer than I’ve admired for a while, is also a strong presence as the tough-guy brute that tries to evoke the façade of an affluent gentleman that, like Gatsby, has demons in his closet.  Maguire is perhaps the most inviting of all the actors here, as he accurately projects a conflicted man that’s hopelessly drawn into a luxurious world that he does not fully understand.  The more-than-accomplished Mulligan, though, seems a bit ill at ease here with fully inhabiting her role as Daisy.  She’s got the look down pat and it’s easy to see why numerous men would be drawn to her, but her peculiar performance makes Daisy a weird cipher that both means everything to the story, but nonetheless feels like a prop at its service. 

It behooves me to relay how disappointed I am with THE GREAT GATSBY.  Luhrmann, for my money, made one of the more daringly original musicals of the last decade in MOULIN ROUGE and is adept at bridging melodrama, theatricality, and a brazen post-modern pop culture sensibility that seems like it would have been a good fit for Fitzgerald’s world.   To reiterate, Luhrmann methodically captures the physical and material extremes of THE GREAT GATSBY, but largely to the negative effect of failing to impart his film with a dramatic soul.  Plus, at nearly two and a half unnecessary hours, this adaptation of the relatively short book feels overstuffed and padded.  In the end, ol’ sport, Luhrmann’s GATSBY is a wondrously radiant looking film, but an empty shell of one at that. 

  H O M E