Another un-filmable film; the Great Gatsby is a pest to review. What exactly is the director, Baz Luhrmann trying to achieve in recreating the ‘great American novel’? Does he understand its message? Or does he see the book as a burden, a device in which to show off a vast array of beautiful and glitzy visuals? The latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece does its very best to misunderstand the book, while also recreating it effectively word for word in a desperate attempt to understand the meaning behind the illustrious words. As the film plays out, an unsuccessful narrative device is added of Tobey Maguire’s character typing out the novel Fitzgerald wrote, and in a brazen attempt to add meaning to these words, Luhrmann floats these words around our view, in an overly desperate directorial technique to bring the book to life. He ultimately fails: the Great Gatsby dazzles its audience in every way apart from the one that really matters. Like its protagonists, it shines bright with a false heart.
Taking place in the glitzy and bright world of the 1920’s, Fitzgerald’s source material centres around a bond salesman named Nick (Tobey Maguire) who moves in across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and also next door to the illustrious and mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) who holds wild and famous parties, to which no one is excluded and everyone is drunk. It soon transpires that Gatsby’s parties are nothing more than a staged illusion, in a flashy and misled attempt to win back Daisy’s heart after five years apart. The book is written with an elegant and beautiful flair, and the standard of the script in the film varies wildly whenever they don’t quote directly from the novel. To their credit, the film is very faithful towards Fitzgerald’s original work, with only a few cheap and quite preposterous attempts at humour breaking up the flow of his work. What carries the film through is the source material, and a quite outstanding performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. The material behind the glitz and glamour that Luhrmann has created is so rich, and so genuine, that it makes the film gripping and immersing (also credit to some very subtle and well portrayed 3D, well worth the extra price). Nearly all of my credit to this movie goes to its central performer however; Leonardo DiCaprio becomes Jay Gatsby. He injects emotion where Luhrmann’s directing shouldn’t allow it, he brings scenes to life through his dialogue, and he raises the standard of his performance to a level which the rest of the film cannot reach.
It’s a colossal shame then, that the film is massively overproduced. Luhrmann is constantly showing off his so-called director’s flair to the audience, and as is his trademark, making scenes shinier. Many would argue with me about this point; after all, the book itself was in many ways a social statement, arguing that the rich are empty, and the glitz and wonder of their spending and lifestyles are just curtains which they hide behind. In some ways perhaps, Luhrmann has realised the overriding message of the novel, and achieves it by over glamorizing and exaggerating every element. However, if he does do this, he does it accidentally. The sense I got was that Luhrmann at many points saw the book as a burden rather than a device to take advantage of, and quotes to the media such as ‘Fitzgerald was a clown like me’ suggest he doesn’t really understand what the book is about. He is there for the visuals, for the style, and he doesn’t disappoint. The film looks wonderful, too wonderful, wonderful to a point of absurdity. One moment, where Gatsby and his friends drive cars over a bridge is blinding, it glitters and sparkles to a point in which you cannot tell who is doing what anymore. It doesn’t help when Luhrmann adds bizarre touches like including Jay-Z music in the film, which creates a sense of fantasy and unrealism, and is totally out of place. Also, many of the actors, including Carey Mulligan sadly, over dramatize their performances a bit, and I fear this is a direct influence from Baz Lurhmann himself. They become less then people, more like cartoons, with only their spearhead, DiCaprio, fully convincing the audience he has real human emotions and real issues.
The Great Gatsby is a missed opportunity and a personal disappointment for me. Although it remains faithful to the book, it misreads or misunderstands many of the themes presented, and the director seems keener just to create a visual spectacle. The cast couldn’t have been better picked, Carey Mulligan is a wonderful actress and seems like a perfect choice for the complex character of Daisy, but her character is underwritten in the script and doesn’t develop into a proper personality. Joel Edgerton was a great villain as the manipulative and slightly repulsive Tom, and he performs his role fantastically, if a bit melodramatically. The role Nick played in the script could have been played by absolutely anyone, and Tobey Maguire does adequately but unspectacularly. Much of his work is reading from the novel, as he is the narrator, and really a device Fitzgerald used to express his feelings on society. And Leonardo DiCaprio is the perfect lead, he gives the Great Gatsby its heart and soul, and without him the film would never have worked. With a better script, and a more tactful director, the Great Gatsby could have been an excellent adaption of a literary masterpiece. Instead, it doesn’t do the book justice. It starts badly, and finishes very strongly, but ultimately it misses the mark for what Fitzgerald was trying to see. It’s all style, all glamour and all glitter, it delves into the realms of fantasy with it’s over excessive visuals, and finally fails to deliver either emotionally or meaningfully.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s entire performance is magnificent. He is the perfect man for the most complicated and difficult of roles. He carries it off effortlessly, and could be the finest performance of his career.
The scene in the secret bar behind the barbershop with Gatsby’s friends is a mess of odd visuals, awkward and melodramatic acting and a bizarre reliance on Jay-Z music to carry it through. It introduces characters that are never seen again, and again Luhrmann seems to miss the point spectacularly.
The Great Gatsby is a triumph of CGI and cinematography, but relies heavily on the source material and Leonardo DiCaprio’s talent to provide the heart that the book was full of. In increasing his reputation as a sparkly and over glamorous director, Luhrmann appears to view the book as nothing more than a story in which to base his visuals around, and this is where the movie loses its heart and its grasp on reality. What a shame this is, the potential of the cast and material was infinite, and in another director’s hands could have presented something special. For many, they will be excited and satisfied by the special effects. For me and the other appreciative fans of the book, it is an overproduced mess in which Luhrmann loses sight of what made the book so memorable. It’s no longer about obsessive love; it’s no longer about a social statement regarding the excessive spending of the rich. Luhrmann turns the Great Gatsby into a firework show. But a glorious one at that.