This review proved nearly impossible to write because, the more I thought about The Great Gatsby, the more I felt I watched two films. The first tottered on the line between lush and garish while delighting me with its soundtrack and making me dizzy with its cinematography. The second was a beautiful and faithful retelling of a beloved novel featuring a truly, truly talented cast. (This review assumes you have read the book, all the way to the to the end, but not seen the movie.)
The first part of the film (until Gatsby and Daisy first come face to face) is a bit of a self-indulgent mess. I’m not kidding when I say it’s mostly CGI-assisted crane shots. The first few were beautiful, but it got old. Quickly. It also quite literally made me dizzy (and I wasn’t even watching in 3D!).
I read some reviews for the film before I saw the movie and one kept continually echoing in my head for the first half of the movie, “Yes, this is exactly what I would expect a Baz Luhrmann ‘Gatsby’ would look like” (Drew McWeeny). It was vibrant, it was loud, it oozed excitement, but I’ve seen it all before. Luhrmann’s style hasn’t evolved since Moulin Rouge. Excepting the different costumes, the party scene footage might have been swept off of that cutting room floor a dozen years ago. When Moulin Rouge hit, Luhrmann’s aesthetic was fresh and edgy. Now it’s a bit tiring.
The movie excelled where Luhrmann’s sense of spectacle was most minimal. The emotional scenes were fantastic. Had the director only managed to curb his Luhrmann-ness, the film might have been an Oscar contender. Unfortunately, understatement is not the man’s strong suit.
Sunbunny acting stars for every single member of the cast. DiCaprio’s Gatsby was even better than the Gatsby I imagine while reading, Tobey Maguire was flawless as Nick, and Carey Mulligan did the impossible by making Daisy Buchanan sympathetic. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (this is her SECOND movie role!) brought to life Jordan Baker, a character I have never really been able to get a handle on. Joel Edgerton played the stereotypical brute nicely, adding a bit of humanity to the nearly irredeemable Tom.
I really cannot say enough about the acting in this film, and about Leonardo DiCaprio in particular. Gatsby is a difficult character because the ‘real him’ is wrapped in layers of lies and affectations. DiCaprio shone in the role. I can’t say why, but in the book Gatsby’s death never really bothered me. Nick’s determination to find Gatsby just one mourner always depresses me, but his death itself never really registered. Gatsby is such a super human character, I could never really relate to him. Not so in the film. I fretted for most of the movie, waiting for his inevitable tragic death. In fact, his movie death might even be more tragic than his book death. The look on his face just broke my heart.
Carey Mulligan, as I said before, actually makes the eminently hatable Daisy Buchanan a (slightly) sympathetic character. The scene the morning of her wedding very nearly drove me to tears and I’ve spent nearly a decade despising her. They didn’t change her part in the plot and she still ends up (as Nick puts it) “smash[ing] up things and creatures,” but I did not at any point of the film wish horrible physical violence to be visited upon her. If only I could say the same of Mia Farrow’s “performance” in the 1974 version.
The movie adheres to the book almost exactly. The few changes that are made are, I think, for the better. More focus is given to Gatsby’s business dealings, which I find fitting for the economic realities of today. The relationship between Jordan and Nick is removed almost completely, but I didn’t miss it. It always seemed superfluous to the main love story. Luhrmann incorporates much of Fitzgerald’s narration brilliantly and to great effect. How he does it (no spoilers) surprised me, but makes perfect sense. It was a nice, non-intrusive addition to the literary classic. Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship is more detailed and much more romantic than in the book. This is fitting because the book’s format is confined to Nick’s point of view, whereas the movie very occasionally deviates from underneath Mr. Carraway’s watchful eyes.
A number of the reviews I read claimed that Fitzgerald’s message was lost in the glitter, but I disagree. Nothing will ever communicate the empty, forlorn feeling as well as the book (it’s Fitzgerald’s specialty), but Luhrmann does a creditable job. The scene where Nick walks through Gatsby’s mansion, now empty, cold, and being reclaimed by nature was breathtaking.
Bits and Pieces:
I think Hollywood should have a CGI-aholics Anonymous.
I always pictured Gatsby’s mansion as being a little less gauche.
I’ve heard several people fault DiCaprio’s delivery of Gatsby’s favorite phase, “old sport.” The only way it’s possible to say that phrase and not sound stupid is to be Thurston Howell III.
I wonder if Leonardo DiCaprio is tired of dying in water. I would be.
The soundtrack to the film is very lovely and very Baz Luhrmann. My favorite song off of it is Lana Del Rey’s hauntingly beautiful “Young and Beautiful,” which is used several times in the movie.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this sort of thing, but I caught quite a few continuity errors and several times where the audio was not synched properly.
Tiffany & Co. custom designed many of the pieces worn by Daisy and Jordan. They are available for purchase and I would be happy with any of them, particularly this ring.
Final verdict: go see it. While the early scenes might prove to be a bit of an endurance test, the finely wrought performances of the extraordinary cast will make it worth your time, I promise.
three and a half out of four green lights