Title: The Great Gatsby
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
The Basics: This adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic takes Jay Gatsby’s quest to reclaim his lost past by reclaiming his lost love and puts a loud and raucous spin on it that can only be describe as Luhrmannian in nature. This quintessentially American story of Gatsby, the tragic dreamer; Daisy, the “golden girl;” and Nick, the man whose own life becomes tangled in their reunion, is presented for audiences with lavish cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and a modern soundtrack. All this adds up to a film that has a clear sense of style but not enough substance. There are moments when it comes close to the heart of the novel, but those moments are too-often undercut by a heavy-handed script, misguided direction, and one of the worst casting decisions in recent memory.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): When I was 13 and read The Great Gatsby for the first time, I was convinced that Leonardo DiCaprio would make the perfect Jay Gatsby. Eleven years later, I left the theater feeling vindicated: This movie had its share of flaws, but DiCaprio wasn’t one of them. He was everything I could have hoped for in an adaptation of my favorite literary character, and that’s not just hyperbole. It was refreshing to watch DiCaprio turn on the charm in this role and act every bit the charismatic star he so rarely allows himself to be onscreen. But underneath that golden charm Gatsby wears as easily as one of his pink suits is a desperation that could have been lost in the hands of a lesser actor. Instead, DiCaprio allowed the audience perfect little glimpses behind Gatsby’s carefully constructed façade, reminding us that this is a desperate man as well as a debonair one. Above all else, though, DiCaprio excelled at making Gatsby a real man rather than just a symbol or a mythic figure. He gets every dimension right—from Gatsby’s sense of hope to his deluded belief that Daisy is worthy of that hope. While many may argue the true “greatness” of Jay Gatsby, I don’t think there can be any arguing over the greatness of DiCaprio’s turn as one of literature’s most iconic (and complicated) characters.
Scene Stealer: I didn’t know who Joel Edgerton was before seeing The Great Gatsby, but now I can’t stop thinking about his brilliant turn as Tom Buchanan. Yes, he gave the role the sense of brute physicality and gruff menace necessary to contrast with DiCaprio’s smooth and romantic take on Gatsby. However, he was also able to take the Tom Buchanan of Fitzgerald’s prose and elevate him to something resembling a human being—albeit a reprehensible one. Edgerton had one foot on each side of the line between humanity and heartlessness, and that worked incredibly for the character. Tom can’t be someone you root for, but he doesn’t have to be cartoonishly evil, either. Edgerton’s work in the hotel room confrontation was some of the most captivating and nuanced acting in the whole film. Every time he was onscreen, I could feel the tension between him and almost all the other characters, and that’s exactly what I’d hoped to feel when it came to Tom Buchanan.
Bring the Tissues? There are opportunities for tears in this film, but I found myself dry-eyed throughout all of it. Others may feel differently, though—especially if they have somehow managed to avoid any knowledge of how the story ends.
Should I Stay or Should I Go? To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any hidden gems during or after the credits, so you can head out as soon as they start rolling.
Most Memorable Scene: For most viewers, the lasting impression of The Great Gatsby is probably the first party scene, and that’s because it makes quite the impression. In this one scene, Luhrmann’s style worked like a charm: the anachronistic music, the chaotic action, the lush colors, and the opulent set pieces came together in a way I think Fitzgerald himself would have approved of.
However, the scene that will stay with me the most is the scene I think comes closest to the spirit of the novel. It’s a quiet conversation between Gatsby and Nick outside the former’s mansion in which Gatsby reveals his obsessive need to recreate the past, and Nick concludes (in his voiceover) that Gatsby isn’t so much in pursuit of Daisy as he is in pursuit of who he was when he first loved her. It took one of the most meaningful passages in the novel—the passage that gets to the heart of who Jay Gatsby is perhaps better than any other—and brought it to life:
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…
In a film that tried so hard to make The Great Gatsby a love story between Daisy and Gatsby, I was shocked to see this scene done so well because it reveals that the real love story is between Gatsby and the innocence he had when he had first loved Daisy. This is the true spirit of the novel—it’s a story about a man searching for a way to go back in time in the midst of a country and time period that were all about moving forward. For one brief moment, I felt like the filmmakers actually understood the soul of the novel they were adapting, and that made me happier than I excepted to be at any point during my viewing of The Great Gatsby.
Strengths: The film’s greatest strength is its star. DiCaprio managed to take one of the most-dissected characters in literature and make him crackle with new life. The complexity and raw emotion he brought to his performance were a welcome surprise. He was able to convey both the astounding innocence and desperate ambition that make Gatsby such a compelling character. And he was able to generate the perfect kind of chemistry with Carey Mulliagn. I loved their scenes together. When judging their chemistry, remember: THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY. He’s supposed to be obsessively attached to her as an ideal more than as a person, and she’s supposed to be unable to meet him even halfway because she’s nothing like the ideal he conjured up over the years. With that in mind, these two actors did a phenomenal job of showing their relationship for what it really is in the books: beautiful in theory but empty in execution. DiCaprio’s intensity was never quite matched by Mulligan, but that is exactly the way it was supposed to be.
The film also succeeds in capturing the essence of Nick and Gatsby’s relationship. While I have a lot of negative feelings about the framing device (which I’ll get to in the next section), I do think it did a solid job of showing the way Gatsby became a kind of mythic hero for Nick. Gatsby had a profound impact on Nick and left him questioning everything about his life, his society, and his values. And ultimately, Nick comes to see that he what he values is what Gatsby stood for: innocence and hope. But he’s still unsure if those things can survive in the real world, and that ambivalence came across really well in the film. I know that most people probably found the last shot of the film cheesy—with Nick adding “The Great” to “Gatsby” on his manuscript’s title page—but I loved that it made literal the idea that Gatsby became a kind of mythological creature to Nick, a human being so rare and so worthy of being celebrated that he had to write about him. Because that’s what makes Gatsby’s story not a total tragedy: He lives on in and through Nick. That’s such an important part of the novel, and I was happy to see it translated well onscreen.
There’s no denying that some of the technical aspects of the film were stunning. The costumes were breathtaking. Gatsby’s home and Daisy’s estate were both as lavish and as beautiful as I’d imagined them to be when I first read the novel. Luhrmann’s dizzying directorial style lent itself well to the party scenes, and he showed some surprising restraint in some of the early Daisy/Gatsby scenes, allowing his talented actors to shine. I even found the use of modern music added to the story in most cases (except when the songs were actually well-known—that took me out of the moment completely every time it happened). After all, hip-hop is this generation’s jazz.
Weaknesses: For as close as the film came to getting to the real heart of The Great Gatsby, it ended up missing the mark in spectacular fashion—perhaps because we can see it hovering around the deeper themes of the novel before turning away from them in favor of trying to make the story about Luhrmann’s favorite topics: star-crossed lovers and visual extravagance. In terms of both Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship and the party scenes (both Gatsby’s and the party with Tom and Myrtle in the city), Luhrmann completely missed the point of the novel. These are things we’re not supposed to be celebrating. We’re supposed to see the emptiness behind the glittering façades, the sense that both Gatsby’s parties and his love for Daisy are tragically futile attempts to become a part of a society that he was ultimately too pure to ever survive in.
Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship is where Luhrmann most clearly missed the mark. While I think DiCaprio and Mulligan did everything they could as actors to show how unhealthy the relationship really was, Luhrmann seemed intent on romanticizing it, which is the opposite of the way Fitzgerald handled the relationship in the novel. In fact, the most telling passage about their relationship was curiously absent from the film despite the use of so much of of novel’s original text:
There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
I think that omission says everything about Luhrmann’s insistence on telling a different story than Fitzgerald—or at least the same story with a different tone. In that same vein, Daisy was much more sympathetic in the film than I ever found her to be in the book. The inclusion of the image of her reaching for the phone before Gatsby died was far too melodramatic and sentimental for me—as was Gatsby’s entire death scene. I know it’s a major moment in the story, but I loved how understated it was in the book. I think it actually undercut some of the tragedy of the moment to have it played for such melodrama.
In addition, I think Luhrmann and his team also made a huge misstep when casting one of the most important roles in the film. From the day he was cast I knew I was going to have a major issue with Tobey Maguire as Nick, and sadly I was right. Any adaptation of The Great Gatsby is going to be narration-heavy, so I can’t for the life of me understand why they would cast someone with the most boring voice imaginable as the narrator. Maguire’s line readings for some of the most important excerpts from the novel fell painfully flat, such as, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” and the entire last monologue. Those moments should bring tears to your eyes and goosebumps to your skin, but instead they felt strangely emotionless. Also, Nick is supposed to have an edge to him, a kind of cynicism that puts him between the carelessness of the Buchanans and the hopefulness of Gatsby. However, Maguire played Nick like a wide-eyed hick too often reduced to comic relief and getting drunk on the sidelines.
Speaking of Nick getting drunk, I really hated the film’s framing device. Yes, it showed us that Gatsby had a profound impact on Nick, which was very important to me. But it also took away some of the power of Nick’s final moments in the novel. Nick leaves New York with a clear head and a clearer sense of right and wrong. The East may have been haunted for him, but I never got the sense that he was completely broken at the novel’s end. I think the omission of Nick’s relationship and subsequent rejection of Jordan Baker was a big misstep in the film. That’s a huge moment of character growth for Nick, and by omitting that character arc Nick is reduced to nothing more than a flat character in his own story.
My final issue with the film is one that surprised me: I think Luhrmann was too literal with Fitzgerald’s text. As much as I love the poetic language of The Great Gatsby, it often stood out like a sore thumb in the film. There were moments when the narration was so heavy-handed and unnecessary, and it felt as if Luhrmann simply wanted to prove that he’d read the book before making the movie. Also, just because the text says it looks like Gatsby was reaching towards the green light, that doesn’t mean he has to physically reach for it. It was cheesy and ridiculous the first time we saw it, and it was even worse at the end. That action and the appearance of the text floating over the screen coupled with Maguire’s lackluster narration diminished the power of one of my favorite passages in literature and failed to replicate the emotional complexity of Fitzgerald’s final words on the American Dream.
Final Verdict: For as many faults as I found with it, The Great Gatsby wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. In fact, some parts of it—especially the acting by everyone not named Tobey Maguire—were genuinely great. However, no amount of strong performances or visual beauty could mask the fact that Luhrmann wanted to make a love story out of a novel that isn’t actually a love story at all. The actors did the best with what they were given, but what they were given often missed the mark.