It may be impossible for The Great Gatsby to make it to the screen and still be The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is such a slippery endeavor, such a combination of dueling character perceptions and unseen incidents, that by the time a filmmaker materializes it, some of its power unavoidably vanishes. Of course, you lose some things and gain others any time you adapt one medium to another, but Gatsby is about a deep, hollow longing lurking behind glitz and glamor. When you put it on the screen, it’s easier to show the frills than the subtle notes of melancholy.
Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby is stylish, slick, funny and entertaining—a bit detached at points, a bit overblown at others. That should be all that matters. A film must work on its own terms, and comparisons to the source ought not matter. Gatsby is a bit tricky, however, because it’s the kind of novel that lives in your mind long after you’ve put it down, that you can reread and find deeper meanings in each paragraph. Any adaptation is going to evoke the feelings the book created and spark a comparison. It’s then that the weak points start to reveal themselves.
Tobey Maguire stars as Nick Carraway, who watches tragedy emerge from the promise of the American Dream in his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio plays this rich and mysterious neighbor, who has been obsessing over Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan)—the one who got away—for five years, hoping to use his newfound wealth to woo her from her unlikeable, philandering husband,Tom.
Leonardo DiCaprio performs wonderfully in the title role, adding a much needed sense of suspicion to Gatsby’s backstory, which is a bit too tidy, his corroborating evidence too readily available. He embodies the act of trying too hard to sell a story. DiCaprio also portrays Gatsby’s longing for and obsession with the past, putting in a great performance even as the film chooses to swap tragic delusion for noble optimism.
Gatsby’s parties are epic endeavors, the kinds of things Luhrmann loves to direct: complete with elaborate platforms, singing, dancing, movie stars and light shows. If there’s one thing the film generates, it’s the excitement and freedom of sexy flappers and wasted money. Luhrmann also gets the social satire of the book and earns a lot of laughs, but in the end, it becomes all about the visuals. Just as he did with Moulin Rouge! (his only film that was perfectly suited to his talents), Luhrmann uses modern music to reflect the excitement of the era in a form to which modern audiences can relate. Music by producer Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter features prominently, while Luhrmann includes nods to the era’s great composers like George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
At times, the film seems over-adapted, at others under-adapted. The actors sometimes look a bit lost when speaking dialogue directly from the book, as if they never got fully comfortable with the source material. Yet the film’s biggest problem is its sloppy handling of voiceover.
In adapting The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann has some of the greatest prose ever written at his disposal. Quote rightly, he uses it in the film. Even if most passages are the same ones you’d find in a study guide, they haven’t lost their power. What does dull the power, however, is the hokey decision to frame the main narrative as a flashback, remembered as Nick writes a book from a sanitarium, recovering from alcoholism.
Yes, Nick actually recites passages from a novel while a doctor looks on with concern, then repeats a few key works as a sort of prompt to continue to the next paragraph. Next thing you know, the doctor basically says, “Hey, why not write this crazy story down? Here’s a pen! If you’re good, we’ll see if we can get you a typewriter.” The aim is presumably to emphasize Nick’s function as a Fitzgerald alter-ego, but that isn’t remotely helpful in the context of the movie. The concluding moment after Nick finishes his novel is particularly cringe-worthy.
The use of 3D is ambitious, but ultimately ill-advised. Luhrmann clearly wants to make use of the format, and creates a nice moment early on as an angel wing seems to materialize and vanish in the mist obscuring the green light. But within a few minutes, Gatsby has become a case study in why 3D is such a difficult format. Over-the-shoulder shots, even angled two-shots (see the delightfully awkward tea scene), create annoying in-your-face blurs. The end of a tassel hanging over a taxi’s rear window becomes a blurry in-you-face annoyance. Confetti and snow prevent the eyes from focusing on anything else. A wide shot that’s supposed to contain pretty 1920s girls instead features a couple of blobs.
Luhrmann often places a window or other handy pane of glass between the camera and his actors, working toward an eventual visual payoff. As reflections of New York City’s neon signs float by a window, well in front of Maguire’s head, it becomes a headache rather than a clever touch. The windows themselves feel downright artificial, as if in crisp focus above the proper plane of focus. Our eyes do not focus past the light refractions on the glass the same way they do in real life. The result is another layer of distortion over characters who are already blurry due to the 3D projection. This glass may well work as some sort of brilliant visual metaphor in 2D, but in 3D, I was too distracted by how much it was hurting my eyes to notice.
It’s not just the 3D. The Great Gatsby in general tends to obscure its best points with distractions. Yet still, it is far from a typical release. It may never come close to what you’ve read, but you’ll definitely see something new.
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (screenplay); F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Release Date: May 10, 2013