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.