The Great Gatsby (Movie Review) – Despite some great visuals and performances, Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” movie is another case of style over substance

By Benjamin Lane

The Great Gatsby. (2013). Run Time: 140 mins. MPAA: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying, and brief language). Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carrey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, and Isla Fisher. Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Directed by Baz Luhrmann.

It isn’t easy to take a popular novel and adapt it into a movie that film lovers and lovers of the source material can truly enjoy together. What’s even more difficult is to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless classic The Great Gatsby, which is widely helmed as the “Great American Novel,” into a movie, which is evident given the five failures in the past. Whether it be a lack of faithfulness or just boring material, the previous attempts of making this novel into a working movie have flopped. Now, we have director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) on the scene to hopefully bring his vivid style to the story and make it acceptable. Does it work? Not as well as we would have hoped.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the majority your life then you already know the main premise of The Great Gatsby. The story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a bond salesman who moves to a section of New York called West Egg to learn about the business. He begins to become interested in his next door neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws enormous parties every weekend, and who also has a strange fascination for Nick’s cousin Daisy, who lives across the river in East Egg. Gatsby’s fascination with Daisy causes immediate revealing of past situations and relationships, and through all of this comes jealousy, rage, and disaster. And obviously, this novel is one of the best ever written. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale is one of immaculate proportions, and one that entangles various emotions with untamable precision. So, it is only fair that someone would want to try to make a movie about the story. The story is great. But it just seems that no one can ever land a movie that rings on as many levels as the book. If it’s faithful, it has to be boring, and if it’s not boring, it likely isn’t faithful. Neither of those are the case with Baz Luhrmann’s version of the novel. In his take, it is a case of what has been occurring a lot in the movie industry today: style over substance. This is a very stylistic movie, and you need to know that going in. In a way that’s a pro, but in more than one way it’s a con. It’s a pro because the visuals are actually the best aspect of this entire movie. On the other hand, though, the visuals serve as a huge distraction from Fitzgerald’s story. Baz Luhrmann surely knows the magnitude of this novel and the power it carries, and to diminish all of that by trying to throw around a lot of beautiful visuals is very saddening.

More on the negatives on the film in a moment, but there are quite a few elements to discuss about The Great Gatsby that really worked for me, and the first one is the performances. This movie is cast very well and the actors all bring their A-game. Tobey Maguire was a perfect choice for Nick Carraway, even though his character sometimes felt a little uneven to me, and the always beautiful Carey Mulligan never misses a beat as Daisy. Also, Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke give some strong supporting work, but, we have to discuss the title role. Gatsby is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in this movie, and he brings what is without a doubt the best portrayal of the character in a film to date. The scene in the apartment when Gatsby explodes shows DiCaprio reaching the Oscar® worthy work we saw in Django Unchained and The Departed. Also a pro in the movie is the faithfulness to the novel. I, personally, am a huge fan of the novel and to see a film adaptation that stands as close to the source material as this one does is very pleasing. Probably my favorite aspect of this movie, which ties into the visual effects, is when Tobey Maguire’s character would be writing what is now The Great Gatsby and the words would actually appear onto the screen and dissolve. It was a very artistic and jaw dropping tactic used. I applaud Baz Luhrmann for that one. Also credited to Baz Luhrmann is the direction, which I’ve said is distracting, but is undeniably good. This may actually be the best looking movie I’ve seen all year. It’s gorgeous. I saw this movie in 3D, and I thought that releasing The Great Gatsby in 3D was one of the most pointless decisions the filmmakers made in the production of it. Boy, was I wrong. The 3D comes with so much depth it will be hard not to find yourself immersed into the world of the 1920s. Also, look out for the shots of the famous green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. It looks absolutely gorgeous in this movie, especially in the closing shot.

Alas, the cons. This is just a slick looking adaptation that completely lacks the heart of its source material. The novel is emotional. The movie is not. I didn’t really care for the characters at any given point, and I know that isn’t just because I already knew the outcome. The film just wasn’t written with enough care for the characters. The visuals, while great, too often outweighed the depth of the characters. Director Baz Luhrmann always finds a way to make a classic story more modern. Maybe for a younger audience? I’m not sure. He did it by replacing swords with guns in Romeo + Juliet (also starring DiCaprio), and he does it in The Great Gatsby by inserting Jay-Z music into 1920s New York. Now I have nothing against Jay-Z, he is a very talented musician, but putting his music in 1920s New York is the worst possible fit. It all felt out of place, and I have no clue how he was chosen for the soundtrack and the film’s executive producer. It’s strange.

FINAL VERDICT: As a huge admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, I have been anticipating this movie for a long time. It crushes me to say, though, that Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, apart from being very faithful and having some of the best visuals and 3D all year, is just a serious case of style over substance. You won’t forget how good the movie looks for a while, but, if you’re unfamiliar with the story, you will forget that, given the seemingly carelessness this movie has for the story and its characters. (C)

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