F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby has become a truly legendary title, a potent critique of the “Roaring Twenties” with a fascinating figure as its central character. There have been several adaptations before this, with perhaps the most well-remembered being the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, but none have really captured the novel’s essence on film. Does this latest version from Baz Luhrmann succeed where the others have failed? Definitely not…
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is reminiscing about his former friend, the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Famed for his extravagant parties at his Long Island estate, Gatsby befriends Nick because he needs help with something. A distant cousin of Nick’s, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), live right across the bay, and Gatsby has a special interest in them.
As mentioned, the novel is a taut, elaborate piece of work that frequently makes “Top 100 Books” lists and explores the great themes of the decadence and social inequalities of the age. This film version brings all those ideas on board… and promptly does absolutely nothing with them, focusing purely on the love story angle and dumbing everything down. This is particularly notable in the characterisation of Gatsby himself; in the book he’s seen as a very complex figure at first but he’s revealed to be far more simple than at first glance. Here though his entire character is pretty much transparent from the word go and none of the later revelations about him have any weight as they just confirm what we already know and/or suspected.
The thing is, the drastic oversimplification of one of the greats of American literature isn’t actually this film’s biggest problem. The big problem is that this is a very Baz Luhrmann film. Luhrmann as a filmmaker doesn’t do subtle and The Great Gatsby is no exception. All his usual preoccupations are here including anachronistic music, in this case several hip-hop numbers, which really don’t fit in this context. The film wallows in excess in a lot of ways, through music, sets, visuals, sheer drama, and this might fit a story about the Roaring Twenties, except the novel’s point was to criticise such excesses and this film wallows in it.
It’s also a tiring experience as every scene is shot and directed to be the height of emotion, only letting up towards the end. It never gives the audience a proper quiet moment to let what’s happened sink in or time to catch one’s breath and the closest it has to such scenes still have either dramatic music, overlapping dialogue or big visuals as distraction. There’s no real pacing or build up, it just keeps throwing everything at you, numbing you for over two hours. The 3D doesn’t add anything worthwhile and, with the frantic editing and constantly moving camera, in some scenes it’s a disorientating, motion sickness-inducing experience.
It’s not all bad though. Things do look very pretty (when the camera’s still enough to let us see them), it’s still a strong storyline and the actors, despite some performances being more than a little arch (looking at Joel Edgerton in particular) are all top notch. Unfortunately, the sheer excess of style and the curtailing of the book’s depth hamstring this, making it more than a bit of a chore to sit through. If you’re already a fan of the director’s previous work (especially Moulin Rouge), you’re likely to enjoy parts of this, but if you’re not, this definitely isn’t the one that will convert you. The best thing that can be said about The Great Gatsby is that it may convince a lot more people to read the book.